Lyon professor’s research delves into body’s detoxifying processes

It’s no secret that we are exposed to a barrage of toxins in our environment. Our own metabolism generates toxins. But how does our body rid itself of these toxins? That is the question at the core of Dr. Tim Lindblom’s research.

Lindblom, associate professor of biology, began a research project as a graduate student to explore the impact of toxins on the body’s detoxification system by examining a soil nematode, or worm, called C. elegans.

“We feed toxic molecules to the worms and then analyze their genomes to see how they respond on a genetic level,” Lindblom said. “We’re looking to see which detoxifying enzymes are turned on by which toxins.”

Lindblom explained that when these toxin-sensing proteins, known as PXR in humans, detect toxic molecules they produce cellular machines that eliminate the toxin. Often, this is problematic for people taking multiple prescription drugs or herbal supplements.

For example, a patient may find a medication becomes less effective or produces harmful side effects if they introduce a second drug or herbal supplement. The reason is the body’s PXR protein senses the second drug as a toxin and produces enzymes that eliminate both drugs or in some cases, the detoxification system can modify the first drug in a way that produces dangerous side effects.

“We know the basics of the body’s detoxification mechanism, but we don’t know how broad it is,” Lindblom said. “If we can gain a better understanding of how this process works, we could see a reduction in drug-to-drug and drug-to-environment interactions.”

Over 12 years of study at Lyon, Lindblom has had 23 students assist him with his research and has gained more than $500,000 in grant support. Students that participate in Lindblom’s research work 10 weeks full-time and earn a stipend for their work. They are also required to attend a scientific meeting and present their findings from their work in the lab.

“We want to do high-quality research, but we also want to give them a valuable undergraduate research experience, particularly the students interesting in working in research. I’m really proud that several of my students have gone on to do research at the graduate level,” Lindblom said.

Drew Davidson, a graduate student studying cellular neuroscience at Tulane University in New Orleans, La., worked in Lindblom’s lab from March 2012 to August 2013.

“The goal of my project was to use mathematical modeling of a population of C. elegans to understand how particular genes flow through a population, from generation to generation, and to better characterize often-obscure gene functions,” Davidson said.

Davidson said the experience he gained in Lindblom’s lab taught him how to conduct research independently, which has been invaluable to him in graduate school.

“The many hours I spent working in Dr. Lindblom’s lab were among the most valuable of my time spent at Lyon College. Since high school I had been taught to think analytically, but Dr. Lindblom gave me my first chance to put these lessons into practice. Working in his lab both prepared me for graduate school and made me realize graduate school was the right path for me. I absolutely enjoyed it, and I’ll always be grateful to Dr. Lindblom for giving me the opportunity,” Davidson said.

Amanda Marra, one of Lindblom’s students who is now studying developmental biology at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Ind., said she may not even be in graduate school had it not be for the experience she had working with Lindblom.

“I started college thinking I was going to be a dentist. I never considered research until Dr. Lindblom talked about it pretty early in our cell biology course. As soon as I started, I knew this was what I wanted to do,” Marra said.

She credits Lindblom’s guidance and trust to give her the freedom to conduct her own experiments with her ability to jump into research at the graduate school level. She is now part of a lab that works with zebrafish and kidney development.