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Loyola researcher wins $109k grant to study drug side effects

Loyola press release - September 3, 2013

The latest research in personalized medicine received a boost this summer with a $109,512 grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents to a Loyola University New Orleans researcher. The research, led by Loyola chemistry professor Jai Shanata, Ph.D., aims to help doctors understand more fully the side effects of drugs specific to each individual patient, especially patients whose diets contain large amounts of cholesterol or fatty acids such as Omega-3 and Omega-6.

“We know broadly what the side effects of drugs are, but what the side effects are based on your genetics, your cholesterol level or your specific diet … we often don’t know,” Shanata said. “This is one of many fronts where we can move to really understand how to better counsel patients on drugs prescribed to them, warn patients that a side effect might be worse for them, and hopefully direct them to adjust their diet to minimize certain side effects.”

The three-year grant—funded by the Board of Regents with an additional contribution of $60,778 by Loyola—will largely fund Shanata’s research lab, including a team of five Loyola undergraduate students. Those students will run actual experiments in the lab to see on a molecular level how drugs might impact lipid bilayers such as those found in cell membranes—basically monitoring the effects of drugs on the body as a whole. Shanata and his students are using a high-tech process to examine the tiny currents that flow across the cell membrane electronically; the team reads the data on a computer.

Students involved include, senior biochemistry major Gabriela Galeano, sophomore biochemistry major Owen Connelly, sophomore psychology major Kimberly Beckford, sophomore chemistry major Sanuja Mohanaraj and junior chemistry major at Tulane, Shane Sepac.

While researchers in the past haven’t focused too much on the indirect side effects of drugs, particularly off-target side effects that can show up for patients with high cholesterol or patients who eat a diet rich in fish oils and other Omega-3 fatty acids, Shanata hopes his research will fill that gap.

“There are going to be these indirect interactions no matter what—and they should be factored in,” he said.

Shanata is especially excited about involving undergraduates in the cutting-edge research. A graduate of a small liberal arts school himself, Shanata knows firsthand the value of exposure to major research projects in his undergraduate years; he worked one-on-one with his faculty mentors starting after his freshman year at Cornell College. Those faculty mentors, because of their close working relationship with Shanata, were then able to recommend him highly for graduate school and beyond.

“What’s important about undergraduate research is that in addition to getting good grades and scoring well on standardized exams, if you want to get into graduate school and even get a job straight into industry, letters of recommendation are really important. Because I work side-by-side with my students, and because they have that detailed mentoring and lots of one-on-one interaction, I can write compelling letters,” Shanata said. “That’s why I came to a small liberal arts school to teach and do research with undergraduate students.”

And students are already reaping those benefits.

Having recently presented at the spring national American Chemical Society meeting in New Orleans, Galeano, one of the undergraduate students working on the research said, “I have benefited from the one-on-one interaction on a professional level on how to effectively present research findings. This has allowed me to gain invaluable experience in public speaking and clear communication.”

This program was funded with the support of Loyola University New Orleans and the Louisiana Board of Regents, through the Board of Regents Support Fund, Contract No. LEQSF(2013-16)-RD-A-10.

Contact Mikel Pak, associate director of public affairs, for media interviews at 504-861-5448.