The University of New Mexico will host a grand opening ceremony Monday to celebrate its newest research facility — the Autophagy, Inflammation and Metabolism Center for Biomedical Research Excellence, or AIM CoBRE.

The event will take place from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the Dominici Center and will feature an inaugural speech by Randy Schekman, who is a Nobel laureate, professor in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology and investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of California, Berkeley.

The speech will be followed by a reception and ribbon cutting ceremony, according to Vojo Deretic, Ph.D., a professor and department chair of Molecular Genetic and Microbiologyand director of the Autophagy, Inflammation and Metabolism Center at the UNM Health Sciences Center.



The center is funded through a grant that was awarded last September by the National Institutes of Health, according to an email sent to the Daily Lobo from Lea Cook, program coordinator for AIM CoBRE.

Deretic said receiving funding for an autophagy research center is a unique opportunity.

“An NIH-funded center focused on autophagy is a first of its kind nationally,” he said. “(University of Texas) Southwestern in Dallas has an institutionally-supported center on autophagy — showing that universities are prepared to make an investment in this developing field. We are fortunate to have obtained NIH funds to jump-start our center.”

Autophagy, or “self-eating,” is a digestive process cells use to cleanse their interiors of intracellular components that are malfunctioning or no longer needed. If this process fails, it can cause or worsen the state of a variety of diseases such as Crohn’s, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes and cancer, Deretic said.

Studying inflammation and metabolic processes will be another area of research at AIM CoBRE. Deretic said studying autophagy, inflammation and metabolic processes in conjunction is important due to the nature of their relationship.

“Autophagy is both a quality control process and a metabolic process,” he said. “If autophagy, in its quality control function, does not properly cleanse cellular interiors, inflammation ensues. There are many inflammatory diseases — when you go to a see a doctor, you often hear them say words that end with ‘itis’— and this is where the inflammation research comes in.”

If autophagy fails in its metabolic — which is primarily catabolic — function, cells do not burn fat or otherwise tend to overgrow, Deretic said. He said this is of relevance for obesity and diabetes, as well as cancer, which is another important research intersection to be studied in the AIM Center.

During his speech at the grand opening ceremony, Schekman will speak about his research on cellular communication and how diseases can affect the process.

“The cells in our body traffic material inside the cell in little packets — they are membrane envelopes called vesicles,” he said. “The protein molecules that build membranes and export proteins, like hormones, are funnelled around in the cell to various destinations….The belief is that these little vesicles in the blood, or in other body fluids, may allow cells to communicate with each other over long distances.”

He said the vesicles can transport the ribonucleic acid, or RNA, from one cell to the interior of a target cell. There, it can change the pattern of genes being turned on and off.

Schekman said this process can be hijacked by certain diseases, such as cancer, which can change the RNA inside these vesicles in a manner that causes the cancer to spread. In diseases like dementia or alzheimer's, vesicles inside the brain can promote the movement of proteins that damage nerve cells.

Deretic said it is an honor to have Schekman speak at this event.

Schekman has won a Nobel Prize for his work concerning cell processes that are the foundation for other aspects of how cells organize and remodel their interiors, autophagy being one of these processes, Deretic said.

“Dr. Schekman is a scientist of global renown...He is a high-profile scientist and an individual of broad impact on biomedical research with strong views on scientific policies and directions. We could not hope for a more appropriate person to come and help us open the AIM center,” Deretic said.

Despite just opening, Deretic said he believes the AIM CoBRE has a bright future that will be highly beneficial to UNM and New Mexico as a whole.

“The AIM Center is in Phase One, funded by $11.5 million for 5 years,” he said. “If we are successful, and I am sure we will be, this will lead to Phase Two and Phase Three, which bring their own $11 million, for a grand total of over $30 million being injected in the New Mexico research community and local economy. This is a very clear future for the center itself, and the burden is on us and our administrative support structures to make sure we succeed for the benefit of all of us at UNM.”

Mikhaela Smith is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @MikhaelaSmith18.