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A taste of heaven: A Russian postdoc gets her first grant to study Rett syndrome

January 30, 2012

Anna Kalashnikova screamed when she opened the e-mail in Jeff Hansen's laboratory in Biochemistry. Hansen and Karolin Luger came running down the hallway, thinking something was wrong.

Postdoctoral Fellow Anna Kalashnikova and Jeff Hansen, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and one of the world's leading experts in chromatin structure. Everything was just right, in fact: Kalashnikova, a 28-year-old postdoctoral fellow working for Hansen, had just learned she received her first $100,000 grant to research the workings of MeCP2, a protein related to Rett syndrome. The two-year grant, from the International Rett Syndrome Foundation, is for basic research.

Not bad for a postdoctoral researcher, Hansen said. Most postdocs don’t get grants at that stage in their career and private foundations like this one often don’t fund basic research because it may not lead to cures right away, he said.

Rett syndrome is a condition with similarities to autism that robs an otherwise healthy child of speech and motor skills and causes mental retardation and other major health problems. There is no cure.

Insatiable appetitie for research

“Anna’s appetite for research has proven to be insatiable,” Hansen said. “The fact that the International Rett Syndrome Foundation funded this is a testimony to her project. It reflects extremely highly for CSU.”

Kalashnikova, who is originally from Moscow and on her first visit to the United States, works with Hansen to study the structure and function of chromatin, the material in which possibly billions of DNA base pairs are compacted in an individual cell nucleus.

But she’s particularly interested in crystallography – the ability to create three-dimensional pictures of proteins at the molecular level.

Universal experience

“I thought it would be good in my training,” she said of coming to CSU after getting her doctoral in Toulouse, France, and her bachelor’s in Moscow. “It’s good in a scientific area to change a country."

She lives in Fort Collins with her husband and two-year-old son who sometimes comes to the lab “to help me out,” she said with a laugh.

Hansen and Luger’s papers on Rett syndrome initially drew Kalashnikova to CSU.

The disease affects about 1 in 15,000 children, mostly girls, and is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorder in girls. The condition appears in otherwise healthy children at about 18 months. The children develop major heart problems, lose motor control and the ability to speak words and often scream for no particular reason.

More on the researchers

Hansen received a National Institutes of Health grant in 2007 to study how the  MeCP2 helps organize genomes, or encoded DNA, in cells. Luger received a grant in 2007 from the International Rett Syndrome Foundation to investigate how MeCP2 interacts with the nucleosome, the subunit of the genome.

Luger and Hansen, who are among the world’s experts in chromatin structure, often collaborate on projects relating to genome structure and function.

Through their research, they found the MeCP2 protein did not follow the rules of protein structure – a discovery that Hansen first published in 2007 and more recently Luger and Hansen published in the January 2011 issue of Nucleic Acids Research. They concluded that the protein folds up differently when binding to chromatin but still functions despite its disorderly tendencies.

Contact: Emily Wilmsen