UMD professor receives grant for copper research

  • Written by  Rachel Cain, photo courtesy University of Maryland
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KimCOLLEGE PARK – Copper imbalances in humans and animals can cause numerous health problems, even heart attacks.

A researcher at the University of Maryland recently received a prestigious grant to study how organs within the body “signal” to each other about their copper levels, and how problems with this communication pathway can contribute to health issues and diseases.

Dr. Byung-Eun Kim, assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ Department of Animal and Avian Sciences, received a $1.39 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to continue his research regarding copper signaling throughout the body.

“Copper is an essential mineral for sustaining life, yet it is toxic when misplaced or accumulated in excess,” Kim said. “The proper acquisition, distribution and utilization of copper and the regulation of copper metabolism are vital to normal human health.”

Kim has researched copper for at least 15 years.

Although copper helps with normal organ functioning, imbalances of the metal element can lead to disease. Through previous research, Kim discovered that the intestines move extra copper through the bloodstream to the heart when it is low on copper.

“He’s (the) first to notice this phenomenon of seeing that copper was being upregulated from the intestine to try to pump into the heart under stressful conditions,” said Samantha Watters, assistant director of communications for the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Maryland.

She compared his study of maintaining healthy levels of copper in the body to the study of glucose levels.

“What Dr. Kim has done is identify a candidate molecule, one that regulates copper instead of glucose. Think about the implications of a discovery like that, and not just the mechanisms of how copper works in the body and heart health and heart attacks,” Watters said. “Without the discovery of insulin, we wouldn’t have really effective treatment for something like diabetes. Studying these mechanisms in your body has huge implications for human and animal health.”

This specific grant is an R01 research grant, one of the top-tier grants available from NIH.

Watters described these grants as “very prestigious” and said “they’re really only funded for very unique and novel research, something that’s very groundbreaking or has the potential to greatly impact human or animal health, or, in this case, both.”

Through Kim’s funded research, he may be able to study unexplained heart attacks in humans and animals.

He will also investigate how the body communicates that certain organs need more copper, and what happens when that communication is severed.

“Learning about this pathway will give us a better understanding of why heart attacks occur,” Kim said. “It will also guide the development of medications and techniques that can address imbalanced copper levels in the body.”

Kim previously received a $10,000 and $30,000 Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station Grant as well.

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