Understanding elastins to develop therapies for aging-related conditions

Anna Tarakanova has long been interested in the functioning of objects and bodies. His chosen specialty in the field of mechanical engineering—studying the structure, function, and mechanics of biological systems and materials, particularly fibrous protein materials such as elastin and collagen—merges the two.

The Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and her team are working to establish a high-fidelity modeling framework for healthy and degenerated elastins to be used as a tool to address different pathological stressors affecting elastin functioning at the nanoscale.

During aging and often age-related chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and osteoarthritis, elastin can degenerate, leading to a decrease in normal function. Elastin is an essential structural protein that gives the skin, heart, blood vessels and other elastic tissues of the body the quality of elasticity they need to function.

“At the molecular level, there are a number of physico-chemical changes that drive this mechanical degeneration over time,” Tarakanova explains. “Because they are quite numerous and act in parallel, it is difficult to deconstruct what triggers the mechanics of the impact and to what degree. If we can understand the mechanism, we can think of new therapies to target aging and diseases associated with aging.

Tarakanova’s work earned her a 2022 Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation. She is one of 11 junior UConn faculty members this year to receive the coveted award, which recognizes the recipient’s potential as a role model in education and research.

CAREER Fellowships come with five-year funding to provide a foundation for a young professor’s research program. Beyond advancing her research, Tarakanova plans to use the funding to create activities and events to engage and support undergraduate and graduate students, especially those from underrepresented groups. The effort will include a reboot of a Women In STEM Frontiers in Research Expo she co-hosted with a colleague in January 2020.

“For me, it was kind of a natural extension of what I wanted to do as a teacher, to be a woman in STEM and to be a minority for most of my teaching career,” Tarakanova says.

Elastin and collagen aren’t the only protein materials that catch his eye. Early in the pandemic, Tarakanova and two of his graduate students began exploring the spike protein associated with SARS-CoV-2 to understand how it moves when interacting with the immune system. She is now working with Paulo Verardi, a pathobiologist at UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, and UConn biochemist Simon White to develop new and potentially better ways to stabilize advanced proteins for use in COVID vaccines. -19, especially with regard to the emergence of new variants of the virus.

“Some of the methods we use to study the spike protein are related to the methods we have used and continue to use to examine elastin,” she says. “It’s a different project, but it largely falls under this fusion of computational and computational models, physics, biomechanics and biochemistry to understand the dynamic behavior of the COVID spike protein, the protein that sits on part of the crown.

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