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The Warsaw Voice » Other » October 28, 2009
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Tracking Down Toxins
October 28, 2009   
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Monika Słomińska-Wojewódzka, a Gdańsk researcher working to develop new methods to treat infectious and neurodegenerative diseases as well as arteriosclerosis has received a scholarship as part of the Foundation for Polish Science's Homing program. The program is designed to benefit researchers returning to Poland after a time spent abroad.

Słomińska-Wojewódzka, Ph.D., works at the University of Gdańsk's Faculty of Molecular Biology. In her research work, she deals with ricin, one of the most toxic substances known to mankind.

Ricin, a toxin found in the beans of the castor oil plant, is considered to be one of the most dangerous substances in the world, inhibiting protein synthesis in cells. Słomińska-Wojewódzka is studying the transport of ricin in human cells, trying to establish how ricin finds its way from the endoplasmic reticulum into the cytosol and what proteins are involved in the process.

Setting sights on malformed proteins
Finding out how toxins work is of tremendous importance to medicine and research on basic processes in cell biology. Toxins, especially those produced by bacteria, are a serious medical problem and so learning the mechanisms which govern the transport of toxins in human cells may help develop methods to treat infectious diseases. Ricin itself may also find application in cancer treatment, Słomińska-Wojewódzka says. Her research work is designed to help explain the mechanisms that cells use to identify pathological proteins synthesized in the endoplasmic reticulum and ways in which such proteins can be degraded. This is of great significance to the diagnostics and treatment of diseases caused by the build-up of such malformed proteins in cells. These findings might one day serve as the basis to develop new methods to treat the arteriosclerosic vascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases, Słomińska-Wojewódzka says.

When she started her career in science as a postgraduate student, Słomińska-Wojewódzka studied the role which a bacterial protein known as SeqA (extracted from Escherichia coli) played in regulating the replication, transcription and growth of the lambda bacteriophage. She examined the effect SeqA had on the replication and expression of the bacteriophage's genetic material and the protein's influence on the growth of the bacteriophage.

Bacteriophages are viruses that attack bacterial cells and play a vital role in nature. They can be harmful when they attack beneficial bacteria, but they are nevertheless of great use to humans. Studies on bacteriophage genes have contributed to the rise of genetic engineering, and bacteriophages are also used in diagnostics, because those that only attack a certain bacterial strain allow for precise identification of bacterial species. Scientists are pinning a lot of hope on the therapeutic applications of bacteriophages. The viruses, which are commonly present in the human body, destroy bacteria and seem totally harmless to the cells of mammals, including humans.

Research conducted by Słomińska-Wojewódzka has contributed to a better understanding of the processes which regulate genetic information expression in bacteria.

Learning from the best
Słomińska-Wojewódzka developed her career in science at laboratories in Germany, Denmark and Norway. Last year, she received a scholarship from the Foundation for Polish Science as part of its Homing program. During her research work abroad, she learned about new laboratory techniques and performed experiments as part of various projects. She says she was able to use equipment that, for financial reasons, was unavailable at Polish laboratories at the time, and she also got an opportunity to learn from the vast experience of researchers working abroad. When she did her postdoctoral internship at the Institute for Cancer Research in Oslo, Norway, she got to acquire techniques that were entirely new to her, including work with human cells and methods to research protein transport in cells. The knowledge she acquired while in Oslo enabled her to continue her research at the University of Gdańsk's Faculty of Molecular Biology.

Słomińska-Wojewódzka wants to continue and broaden her studies, form a small research group and obtain funds to buy the equipment and material she needs to conduct experiments. She says her dream is for her research to find practical application in the development of new pharmaceuticals and therapies to treat various diseases. Her studies may also contribute to a better understanding of what proteins do in cells and how. This could help explain all the complicated mechanisms that govern the functioning of cells.
Piotr Bartosz
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