Kannan receives $2M NIH MIRA award

University of Georgia faculty member Natarajan Kannan

(Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski)


University of Georgia faculty member Natarajan Kannan is a recipient of a highly prestigious Maximizing Investigator Research Award, or MIRA, from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. The MIRA award is intended to provide investigators with greater stability and flexibility in funding to enhance scientific productivity and make important scientific breakthroughs. The program funds research by the nation’s most highly talented and promising investigators.

Kannan, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Bioinformatics, will use the $2 million award over a period of five years to map the complex relationships connecting sequence and function in biomedically important gene families such as protein kinases.

A large family of enzymes, protein kinases function as molecular switches in most living organisms by turning “on” and “off” cellular signals at the right place and time. Abnormal functioning of these proteins in our cells is causally associated with diseases such as cancer, diabetes and neurological disorders. This project will answer fundamental questions related to protein kinase functions in disease and normal states and develop new tools to predict disease phenotypes from genotypes. In so doing the project will accelerate the targeting of these proteins for drug discovery and personalized medicine. The MIRA award also provides the flexibility to extend the specialized tools and approaches developed for the study of kinases to other gene families such as glycosyltransferases, which is a major area of focus in the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center at UGA.

Predicting disease phenotypes from genotypes is a grand challenge in biology and personalized medicine. Kannan’s evolutionary systems biology group is focused on addressing this challenge using a combination of computational and experimental approaches that incorporate techniques from diverse disciplines including biochemistry, bioinformatics, cell biology and computer science.

“Professor Kannan’s work is so impactful because he is not afraid to tackle the big questions. Furthermore, he freely shares his unique expertise in collaborations that help make for new discoveries in other labs as well,” said Christopher West, professor and head of the department of biochemistry and molecular biology. “He previously received a National Science Foundation CAREER award and the UGA Creative Research Medal in Natural Sciences and Engineering, and the NIH MIRA award is a further tribute to his outstanding contributions. We are lucky to have Professor Kannan as part of our scientific community.”

We have made important contributions towards uncovering the functional impact of natural and disease variants in biomedically important gene families, and our success is attributable to the interdisciplinary team of highly motivated and talented students, fellows and research scientists working towards a common research goal,” said Kannan. “We are also fortunate to be part of a strong network of national and international collaborators and a highly collaborative research environment at UGA.”