Meet NLM’s Newest Investigator: Lauren Porter, PhD, Researches “Transformer-Like” Proteins

Photo of NLM's Newest Investigator: Lauren Porter, PhD and a second photo of her in the lab.

Recently, I introduced you to Xiaofang Jiang, PhD, one of NLM’s new tenure-track investigators, who is developing computational methods to advance our understanding of the human microbiome, which plays a very important role in our health.

Today, I have the pleasure of introducing you to Lauren Porter, PhD, a Stadtman Tenure-Track Investigator in the NLM’s Intramural Research Program.

Dr. Porter researches fold-switching proteins. Much like the fictional Transformers, robots that can change into different machines depending on the circumstances, these proteins can change their structures and functions in response to changes in their environment.

Proteins play many critical roles in the body. They carry oxygen in our blood, digest the food we eat, and help our eyes detect light.

A number of fold-switching proteins are associated with diseases such as cancer, autoimmune disorders, and bacterial and viral infections. Right now, very little is known about how these proteins work.

At NLM, Dr. Porter is using data-driven approaches to identify fold-switching proteins and reveal their biological roles, which could lead to the development of new treatments for disease.  

Uniquely, Dr. Porter has a joint appointment at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, where she directs an experimental laboratory. This allows her to participate in the entire process of scientific discovery: her data-driven calculations help her to generate hypotheses that she can then test in the lab.

Video Transcript (below)

I study proteins, and proteins have been thought to have one structure that has one function or fold.

I’m studying this group of proteins called fold-switching proteins. They can actually change their structures and their functions in response to changes in the cell.

So you can kind of imagine fold-switching proteins are like a Transformer, where, in one case, the protein is like a robot that does one thing, and then in another case, in response to changes in our bodies, it becomes a car and can do something else. An advantage to this is it can respond really quickly to changes in our bodies.

Back in high school, I did not imagine myself being a scientist at all. Before going to college, I did kind of fall in love with math, like when I took calculus. I was like, “Wow, this is so cool!” It was the first time I realized that math could be useful for something beyond balancing my checkbook.

At the end of my sophomore year of college, my dad was diagnosed with Stage IV lymphoma. He went through multiple rounds of chemo, and it was just a really hard process — just watching that happen and thinking, “I wonder if there’s a better way?”

Some of the proteins that I’m working on that actually do this phenomenon called fold switching are actually associated with diseases — cancer, Alzheimer’s, autoimmune disease, bacterial and viral infections.

If, by the end of my life, even one successful treatment was made based on this, that would be amazing.

NLM has a really strong track record in computation. There are a lot of excellent scientists here, and I thought it would be great to be able to work with them. I’m also really grateful to have the freedom to pursue what I want to do, and I’m really happy to be here and be able to take chances that I probably couldn’t do in most other environments.

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

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