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Young biochemist seeks to discover medical breakthrough

September 04, 2008

Conor Cox, a biochemistry major in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, came to ASU for its numerous research opportunities and immense resources.

As for his decision to go into biochemistry, Cox acknowledges his high school biology class. As part of the class, the teacher required all students to participate in an internship. “I interned with a virologist microbiologist,” says Cox. “This piqued my interest in molecular biology. And after completing two semesters at ASU, I knew that I had made the right decision.”

When asked how he came to participate in undergraduate research at ASU, Cox mentioned that he had heard a lecture concerning evolution at a meeting of the ASU Student Affiliates of the American Chemical Society (SAACS). After talking to some professors, he came to find that Neal Woodbury of the Biodesign Institute was doing research in this area. “I jumped right in,” says Cox, “and it has worked well.” Woodbury is now Cox’s advisor.

Matt Greving, a graduate research associate at the Biodesign Institute, is his immediate mentor. “He helps me learn the procedures that I am not familiar with,” says Cox, “and is teaching me how to analyze the data which is being generated by this project.”

At its core, the research Cox is working on involves discovering ways to bind peptides selectively to proteins. Peptides are small chains of amino acids, and proteins are large folded chains of peptides that make up much of our bodies. “Currently, I am working to determine where on a protein a peptide binds and how this binding location changes with mutations.”

To begin this research, Cox selects a peptide which has specific binding characteristics. Then, Greving takes that peptide and alters it randomly to see what mutations optimize it. Then, the mutated and original peptides are bound to a protein. By treating the mix with a few chemicals and enzymes, Cox and Greving wipe out everything but the protein piece bound by the peptide.

“We then use a mass spectroscopy device to discover the weight of the bound portion,” says Cox. “This allows us to discover the biding site of a given peptide on a given protein, and allows us to examine how the mutations, which allow a peptide to bind better, chemically improve that binding.”

Cox and his mentor hope to discover why peptides bind where they do on proteins and how this can be improved by less difficult methods than guess and check. If successful, the research could also allow for a big change in medical diagnostics, drug design or medical treatment regimens. “If we can design a peptide that only binds to one protein, or even one spot on the protein, nearly anything in the body can be targeted by it,” says Cox, “If it can be targeted, it can hopefully be destroyed or changed which will aide is fighting disease, infection and the like.”

“Conor is a talented student with the ability to analyze and explain unexpected results from complex experiments,” says Greving. “His rapid success in research is providing him an opportunity to be a key part of scientific publications related to the work, which will make Conor a very strong candidate for graduate school. I'm sure Conor has a very successful scientific career ahead of him.”

Cox hopes to continue this research throughout his undergraduate career and is looking into Neuro-Biochemistry for graduate school. He is interested because it seems like a field where researchers try to answer the philosophical question “Why are humans the way they are?” in the most accurate and scientific way possible. “I am interested in anything that involves society and the nature of human interaction,” he says.

Moreover, his ambitions and achievements have not gone unnoticed. He was recently awarded the CRC Handbook Award for top (out of state) undergraduate in chemistry and is currently receiving a National Merit Scholarship at ASU. He also has made the CLAS Dean’s list every semester. “I have not yet won any scholarships for research,” he says. “Hopefully next year that will change!”

Cox also enjoys practicing martial arts at ASU and is interested in materials science and media studies, especially copyright and the nature and growth of the internet. “Basically,” he says, “I really like complex things that grow and adapt to the conditions placed on them and manage to work around those conditions to form unique behaviors.”

He has a philosophy that applies both to his work and his personal goals. “In research you think something will work, you test it and you work the kinks out and test it again. If it works go with it. If it fails, try something new,” he says. “That is the way I try to live life.”