Maria Mihaylova, PhD, assistant professor of Biological Chemistry and Pharmacology at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, has more than just a gut feeling about metabolism and the diet’s effect on aging intestinal cells. Her research reveals new biology that may explain age-associated pathologies. Researchers in her lab employ advanced methods in gene expression analysis, metabolomics, biochemistry and bioinformatics to track age-related changes in nutrient transporters across the intestine.
This forward-thinking research has gained attention and support throughout the field of bioscience. Dr. Mihaylova is among 21 early-career scientists selected for the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences. She’ll receive four years of funding and join a community of more than 500 Pew scholars, whose ranks include multiple recipients of Nobel Prizes, Lasker Awards and MacArthur Fellowships.
“I am so grateful to Pew for investing in my research and for the chance to collaborate with other Pew scholars,” Dr. Mihaylova says. “Interacting with scientists from various disciplines has been integral to the success of my research and lab. We learn from each other.”
Support to pursue new research paths
Pew biomedical scholars are selected by a national advisory committee, composed of eminent scientists, based on proven creativity in previous research. What sets Dr. Mihaylova’s Pew-funded studies apart is their emphasis on building analytical tools as well as culture systems that better mimic the intestinal architecture and environment.
The intestinal tract provides a rich environment for study because it coordinates important tasks that facilitate food digestion and nutrient absorption with the help of the microbiome. Trillions of microbes that live in the gastrointestinal tract coexist with the human host to accomplish important tasks necessary to maintain life, including nutrient digestion that facilitates absorption.
The gut contains non-dividing mature cells, as well as stem cells that are in a state of constant division and cell replacement to replace the gut lining in four to five days. As we age, these rejuvenating stem cells begin to lose function and the ability to proliferate as they once did, which may contribute to altered expression of nutrient transporters within them.
“This way we can study whether or not proteins, which are responsible for transport of nutrients to cells, are negatively impacted by age or if it is the dysregulation of signals to these proteins that affect the uptake of nutrients,” Dr. Mihaylova says.
Dr. Mihaylova and her team will examine intestinal stem and progenitor cells to gain insight into how cellular changes contribute to metabolic and digestive issues common in the elderly population. This insight could then be harnessed to better understand how these cells are repaired after an infection or cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment.
“This could lead to incorporating dietary strategies in managing disease,” Dr. Mihaylova says. “And lead to new strategies for slowing or reversing the age-related decline in intestinal function, boosting metabolic health and facilitating tissue repair.”
The ability to conduct single cell analysis will allow fellow researchers to better understand how specialized cells develop and what can go wrong over the course of that development. It also offers clues to improve cellular function or even interrupt the aging process to ensure more functional tissues remain in the body over time.
Mark Parthun, PhD, professor and chair of Biological Chemistry and Pharmacology at the Ohio State College of Medicine, explains that the Pew Scholar Award is a well-deserved recognition of Dr. Mihaylova’s innovative and impactful work.
“Her association with the Pew Scholars program will allow her to interact with some of the best scientists in the country, which is likely to provide new opportunities to expand her research program,” Dr. Parthun says. “Maria represents the new generation of scientists who are bringing world-class research to Ohio State.”
Dr. Mihaylova was previously selected as the second recipient of Ohio State’s Block Lectureship Junior Faculty Award, where she was mentored by the 2019 Block Memorial Lectureship awardee – Elaine Fuchs, PhD, a preeminent cancer scientist at The Rockefeller University in New York City.