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Feb. 19, 2004

Nerve Cell Research

When Steve Matheson was applying to Calvin College for a job as biology professor his post-doctoral advisor at Harvard Medical School thought the school's location in Grand Rapids rang a bell.

"So he looked in his datebook," says Matheson, "and he says: 'Art Alberts is in Grand Rapids. He's at the VanAndel (Research Institute).' Which got me excited because Alberts and my advisor are good friends. And Art and I study the same protein. I figured if I was fortunate enought to get the job at Calvin I'd be able to work with Art too."

As it turned out Matheson did get the job at Calvin. And the first summer he was in town he and two Calvin students spent 10 weeks conducting experiments with Alberts at the VanAndel Research Institute.

Now the collaboration is bearing further fruit. Matheson has just received a grant of $189,470 to continue his research on nerve cells, specifically the actions of signaling proteins called diaphanous-related formins, or DRFs. The grant comes from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke under the auspices of the Department of Health and Human Services.

DRFs are part of Matheson's research on spinal cord injury - "think Christopher Reeve," he says.

One of the key research challenges right now as far as spinal cord injury is figuring out if it's possible to get nerve cells to regrow. Matheson calls this the holy grail of spinal cord research. DRFs, he says, are an unknown in the whole nerve cell regeneration process.

"We do know," he says, "that Rho proteins are involved in nerve cell development. And that Rho proteins turn on DRFs. But we know essentially nothing about the roles of DRFs in the nervous system, at any stage of development. The question is could they play a role in the regrowth of damaged nerve cells. Nobody knows. We're hoping that our research will yield some answers."

Most of the work will take place at Calvin, where, Matheson says, the new DeVries Hall make scientific research a pleasure. Indeed Matheson will make good use of Calvin's new flow cytometer, a specialized instrument usually found in hospitals, research labs and large, graduate-level universities, that Calvin installed last fall thanks to a $225,000 National Science Foundation grant. And some experiments will take place at Van Andel Research Institute.

Matheson also anticipates using two parttime students each school year and two fulltime student assistants every summer, using the grant monies to pay their salaries. He says the quality of Calvin's students makes using student help a no-brainer.

"Our top students," he says, "compare to the top students at any college in the country. The VanAndel Research Institute can't get enough of them. For me to have their assistance is an easy decision."

Matheson has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Arizona and hopes that he is able to convey to his students the same excitement he felt the first time he took a course on the human brain some two decades ago.

"The brain still has a sort of frontier feel about it," he says. "There is so ridiculously much about it we don't understand. In my research I'm playing with cells and how they work and somehow it all adds up to a brain that can move muscles and have conversations and do all kinds of amazing things. It's exhilirating.

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Contact Phil de Haan
616-526-6475 (v)
616-526-7069 (f)