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Brian RalphFrom the Lab Bench to the Computer

Brian Ralph ’15 combines two approaches to researching innovative pain medication

A passion for both science and math has been a boon for undergraduate Brian Ralph, catapulting him to the crossroads of a major multidisciplinary research project. Since joining the team at the Institute for Chemical Biology and Drug Discovery (ICB&DD) at Stony Brook, Brian has worked with researchers in Biochemistry and Cell Biology, Chemistry, Applied Mathematics and Statistics, and Anesthesiology to develop new pain medications that will work by elevating the levels of natural painkillers in the body.

“It’s a great group,” says Brian, a member of the Honors College who is a biology major with a concentration in quantitative biology and bioinformatics — in his words “a bit of a crossover between biology and math.”

Now a junior, Brian has been working in Dale Deutsch’s biochemistry lab since his freshman year. Deutsch, Professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, and his associates are studying new classes of inhibitors that temporarily stop the action of Fatty Acid Body Proteins (FABPs) present in our cells. The result of this inhibition is an artificial elevation in the natural painkillers — called endocannabinoids — that exist in our bodies. Drugs that may eventually be developed from this research will not be addictive, which is a common problem with the opioids now widely used.

Last month, the ICB&DD received a $3.8 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to continue its groundbreaking work. Led by Principal Investigator Deutsch, other members of the team include Iwao Ojima, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Director of the ICBⅅ Martin Kaczocha, a former post-doctoral fellow in Deutsch’s lab who is now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology; Robert Rizzo, Associate Professor of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Statistics; Bill Berger, a PhD candidate in Ojima’s lab; Huilin Li, a biochemist in both the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology and at Brookhaven National Lab; and the Laufer Center for Quantitative and Physical Biology.

To tackle the project from another direction, Brian also works in Rizzo’s lab using software that allows him to visualize and manipulate the FABP protein structures in three-dimensional space. “Different laboratories have different approaches to the same research,” explains Brian. “In Dale’s lab we take a biological approach, and here it’s more of a computational or structural approach.”

In December 2012 Brian co-authored a paper based on the team’s research with Berger and Koczocha in PlosOne. He is also co-author, along with Kaczocha, of a second paper submitted to PlosOne for review.

Brian started doing research when he was a student at Smithtown High School West as part of Stony Brook’s Simons Summer Research Program, when he worked with Alan Turner in the Department of Anatomical Sciences. His work in the Deutsch lab has been supported by URECA and a Harvard Lyman award. Brian is a member of both the Undergraduate Biochemistry Society and the Undergraduate Biology Advisory Board.

With the goal of becoming a dentist, Brian is also active in Stony Brook’s Pre-dental Society and has shadowed pediatric dentists and oral surgeons.

Will he combine research and dentistry someday?

“That’s still up to debate,” says Brian. “I love dentistry. It’s something that’s become very close to me. And while I wish to pursue dentistry, I definitely want to continue with research in the future because it has been such a big part of my life.”

In his spare time, Brian plays the cello in Stony Brook’s undergraduate orchestra. He also enjoys cycling and running and is training for a triathlon next spring.

“In the end, I would love to live a modest life as a dentist,” he says. “Something where I’d be able to enjoy my life and what I do every day. I’d also like to be able to contribute to the ongoing questions in science and research as part of a lab. And, of course, someday I would love to see Stony Brook’s FABP inhibitor on the market.

“You never know. Five, ten years from now, maybe we’ll have advances that can put it through clinical trials, and we’ll see where it goes from there. I’d love to see our whole lab group — the ICB&DD’s — name on a pain inhibitor, something as common as aspirin, hopefully.”

By Toby Speed

 

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