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New Chemistry Professor Researching Better Ways To Treat Cancer

by Sarah MacDonald

It has been a whirlwind 10 months for new Northeastern University professor Carla Mattos. She moved to Boston, set up a new lab in structural biology, and won a highly competitive grant for a piece of new equipment that will expand research opportunities for the entire Northeastern community.

And Mattos is not slowing down now.

“It takes a while to get things set up, tested, working properly,” she said. “But we’re anxious to get back to the research, get back to the work.”

Mattos came to Northeastern from North Carolina State in January and spent several months getting settled and setting up her new lab. She brought four post-doctoral students with her and has since taken on four Northeastern graduate students.

Mattos’ lab is looking at two main projects — one in basic scientific research and the other a translational application aimed at better treating cancer. Both projects involve understanding the function of the Ras protein and its role in the process of cell proliferation that is prominent in cancer. Existing cancer treatments are aimed at interrupting the site inside the cell where Ras and other proteins are interacting, and causing cells to multiply out of control. That site is notoriously difficult to target, Mattos said, and therefore the results of cancer treatments at a cellular level can vary.

Mattos and her team are looking at whether the interactions at another site where Ras proteins are found — called the allosteric site — could provide another place to target treatment.

Using a new protein x-ray crystallography machine, bought with National Science Foundation grant funding Mattos received last month, the research teams can examine crystals of Ras as they refract the high-intensity x-ray beam.

“We start seeing, at atomic resolution, the structure of the protein,” Mattos explained. “Then we can start playing with the crystals.”

The equipment will also be used by other faculty, some of who now participate in outside collaborations in order to gain access to a protein x-ray crystallography machine. Students will be able to do new and different types of research because of the machine.

“It will open up new possibilities,” she said.

Mattos is no stranger to Boston; she met and married her husband while they both were doctoral students at MIT. While she spent just over 12 happy years as an assistant professor at North Carolina State University, she jumped at the chance to come back, particularly to Northeastern.

“I was just stunned at the energy, the commitment to investment in research… I saw it as a tremendous opportunity,” she said.

Mattos wasted no time in diving in — submitting her NSF grant application in May, then submitting a second application in September in hopes of funding a summer program for minority undergraduates working in the lab.

Her personal commitment to diversity in the profession is long-standing; Mattos has participated in programs with Quality Education for Minorities for years. She is also a strong belief in advocacy for science, and has already coordinated a faculty seminar, which brings her colleagues to a variety of minority institutions to talk about their research and encourage enrollment at Northeastern.

“I believe as scientists, it is our responsibility to talk to the general population about science, to get them engaged, to explain how important it is,” she said. “If people don’t know about science, it won’t be a priority.”

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