Dr. Peter Kasson, MD, PhD has been working in the group for almost two years. Peter's interests are in the area of lipid vesicle fusion, a process relevant for many biological processes as well as relevant for disease and infection. Lipid vesicles are large assemblies of detergent-like molecules that are used to house and/or contain many different types of molecules in biology. Many viruses ("envelope viruses") are housed in lipid vesicles, but so are the neurotransmitters in our brains. In order for these containers to be shuttled around (eg as neurotransmitters transmit thoughts in the brain or when viruses try to enter cells) lipid vesicles fuse with other vesicles or with cells (which are like giant lipid vesicles since cell walls are made of lipids).
Thus, membrane fusion provides the mechanism for the entry and infection by enveloped viruses such as influenza, Ebola, SARS, and HIV. Not surprisingly, the steps driving membrane fusion are the targets by which these critically important processes are regulated, and thus a fundamental understanding of membrane fusion mechanisms will enable the design of novel anti-viral drugs. When faced with the potential for rapidly emerging and highly virulent infections, such an understanding of fusion becomes of particular importance to both fundamental biology and national health.
Peter brings a diverse set of skills to the group. He has both a MD and a PhD in biophysics, which makes him particularly well suited to study lipid vesicle fusion from both a biophysical (eg model membrane systems) and a medical (eg looking at models for influenza infection) point of view. Peter also plays a large role in the infrastructure development for Folding@home. He is the lead developer for the SMP client & core and is constantly looking for ways to push FAH's capabilities in order to tackle these complex problems. Indeed, due to the very large size of lipid vesicle simulations (which can easily be 1 to 10 million atoms in size), the SMP client is extremely important to this research.
Peter has already had several papers accepted in peer review with his work from FAH, examining the biophysical nature of lipid vesicle fusion as well as studying the protein-membrane interactions involved in the fusion caused by the influenza virus. Finally, what many people may not realize is that a large aspect of lipid vesicle fusion in biology involves protein conformational change and/or some sort of folding. Indeed, in influenza, there is a small peptide (HA) which likely goes through some folding process during fusion and subsequently this new HA peptide conformation leads to a change in the host membrane, making it more susceptible to fusion, leading to influenza infection, and thus getting the flu.
Studying this process brings together many aspects of what we've learned in FAH and builds on top a lot of our previous work, especially in peptide folding and MSM creation.