Postdoc Profile: Lianne Willems, Banting Postdoctoral Fellow

September 15, 2015

Congratulations to Dr. Lianne Willems, recipient of a prestigious Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship of $70,000 per year for two years to support her research at the Department of Chemistry, SFU. Dr. Willems is one of five Banting Fellows at SFU in 2014–15.

Dr. Willems will be working with Dr. David Vocadlo, Department of Chemistry, to collaborate on his lab's advanced research that aims to advance our knowledge of the molecular mechanisms that underly neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.

During her doctoral research, she created a new technique which has the potential to revolutionize certain experimental strategies. Specifically, she developed a labeling strategy that combines three highly selective ligation reactions for the simultaneous detection of three different proteins in a biological sample. This technique will aid other researchers in studying complex cellular processes that require the monitoring of multiple biomolecules.

Triple Bioorthogonal Ligation Strategy for Simultaneous Labeling of Multiple Enzymatic Activities

She says, “My work was the first demonstration of the parallel use of three ligation reactions within cell extracts. This type of chemistry has already been applied successfully to a myriad of other biological systems,so I expect my new strategy to be widely applicable to the labeling of any biomolecules. Such tandem labeling strategies are gaining much interest in the field of chemical biology, because of the high complexity of many cellular processes and the ongoing demand for new techniques to study these processes.”

Dr. Willems also worked on a novel set of inactivators for a class of enzymes that is involved in lysosomal storage disorders, e.g. Fabry disease. These inactivators are currently being used by biomedical researchers as tools to study these enzymes and their involvement in disease.

Her research was published in the top generalist chemistry journals Angewandte Chemie and the Journal of the American Chemical Society, and based on her exciting work in tandem ligation chemistry and enzyme probes, many SFU researchers are looking forward to working with her. They will be collaborating in order to drive forward projects on new enzyme probes as well as to exploit these creative tandem tagging methods to address current questions relating to protein function within cells. 

Dr. Willems says, of her research plans, “Dr. Vocadlo's lab made an exciting new breakthrough last year on how sugars can be added onto proteins as they are being made within cells. However, little is known about the mechanisms by which cells control this process and what it`s functions are. The aim of my proposed project is to elucidate the scope and importance of this newly uncovered process by identifying the repertoire of sugar modified proteins within cells, the specific sites at which target proteins are modified and how the added sugars affect the protein`s physiological functioning.”

The partnership between Dr. Willems and Dr. Vocadlo promises to be highly fruitful. Early results from Dr. Vocadlo's Laboratory for Chemical Glycobiology have already led to further funding, including a $1.5M British Columbia Alzheimer Disease (BCAD) grant. Dr. Vocadlo has also formed a major alliance with the international pharmaceutical company Merck so that the lab's discoveries can be translated into medical benefits for the world. 

In addition to the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship, Dr. Willems has also received a Rubicon Fellowship, awarded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), for her postdoctoral research.

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