Colin G. Nichols, Ph.D., recently became the first Carl F. Cori Professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
Nichols, who is professor of cell biology and physiology, studies molecules on the surfaces of cells known as ion channels. These channels let charged particles pass into and out of cells and play critical roles in physiological processes from thoughts to movement.
The Carl F. Cori Professorship is named in honor of a University faculty member who shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine with his wife and fellow faculty member, Gerty Cori, in 1947. They received the prize for their studies of the control of sugar metabolism.
The professorship is the third of an initial group that have been endowed as a component of the University’s BioMed 21 initiative. The initiative is dedicated to speedily translating laboratory discoveries into new approaches for patient diagnosis and treatment.
“Colin Nichols’ work is very basic research that has helped bring about a dramatic change in the clinical treatment of neonatal diabetes,” says Larry J. Shapiro, M.D., executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, “He in turn has used data from the clinic to refine his research, and that’s just the kind of bench-to-bedside synergy we want to promote via BioMed 21.”
Two other BioMed 21 professorships, also named for University faculty members who won Nobel Prizes, were awarded in 2006. Endowments for these chairs were donated by John F. McDonnell and the JSM Charitable Trust Foundation. McDonnell, the younger son of honored aerospace pioneer James S. McDonnell, is vice chairman of the Washington University Board of Trustees and has served on the board since 1976.
“Washington University has been extremely fortunate to have the support of John F. McDonnell,” Washington University chancellor Mark S. Wrighton says. “His remarkable generosity and effective leadership have encouraged significant achievements in research and education at the University. His support of faculty professorships in particular has contributed enormously to recognizing and supporting talented faculty.”
Nichols came to Washington University in 1991 from joint appointments at Baylor University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore. He became a full professor of cell biology and physiology in 2000.
“It’s a little daunting to think what this new Cori professorship means, but it’s also a great honor and will help fund new directions in my research,” Nichols says.
Nichols’ laboratory uses computer, cellular and animal models to probe the structure, function and regulation of ion channels, which can change the way cells function by controlling their electrical polarity.
He has, for example, selectively expressed these channels in a mouse’s heart tissue and used them to model the electrical derangements that occur in heart arrhythmias.
Six years ago, Nichols mutated an ion channel active in the pancreas of mice and predicted the mutations’ effects would lead to diabetes in the mice. After finding that it did so quite dramatically, he suggested the gene for the channel was likely to play a role in human diabetes. Later, other researchers confirmed this hypothesis, leading to a change in scientists’ understanding of what causes neonatal diabetes. As a result, the condition is now treated differently, with a daily pill instead of three-times-daily injections of insulin.
“This shows that you don’t have to start out from a clinical perspective,” Nichols says. “There’s an advantage to be had in coming at the problem from the basic point of view that we started with.”
A portion of Nichols’ research program studies the structure of ion channels in detail, seeking to understand how the structure supports the channel’s function. To confirm his theories, he precisely mutates specific parts and observes how this changes the channel properties.
In recent years, as genetic data on human mutations in ion channels has become available, Nichols has used this data to fine-tune his efforts to identify key parts of the channels’ structure.
“These human mutations can reveal areas that are important to the channel that we wouldn’t recognize through molecular modeling and other analyses,” he says. “We’re also working with colleagues to try to predict how different forms of these mutations lead to diseases of differing severity and treatability.”
Nichols is the current president of the Society of General Physiologists and a fellow of the American Heart Association. He is a member of the Biophysical Society, the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, the American Heart Association Basic Science Council and the American Diabetes Association.
Nichols is also a member of the Cori Society, a Washington University organization that promotes informal interactions between students and faculty.
Washington University School of Medicine’s full-time and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked fourth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.