NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Stetten Lecture Set, Oct. 19

Biological Chemist O’Halloran To Discuss Metals’ Roles in Cellular Functions

Dr. Thomas O’Halloran
Dr. Thomas O’Halloran

Inside our bodies is a surprising amount of metal. Not enough to set off the scanners at the airport or make us rich, but enough to fill each of our cells with billions of metal ions, ranging from calcium to zinc. These particles perform critical biological functions. However, too much of any particular metal can be toxic, while too little can cause disease. A whole series of proteins that bind, sense and transport metal ions ensures that the ions flow into and out of our cells at the right time and in the right amounts.

The molecular mechanisms that control these fluxes are the focus of this year’s DeWitt Stetten Jr. Lecture by Dr. Thomas O’Halloran of Northwestern University. His talk, on Wednesday, Oct. 19 at 3 p.m. in Masur Auditorium, Bldg. 10, is titled “Elements of Health and Disease: Inorganic Fluxes and Metal Receptors That Control Cell Fate Decisions.” The event is part of the NIH Director’s Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series and is sponsored by NIGMS.

For the past three decades, O’Halloran has investigated how fluctuations in the amount of metal ions inside cells influence key cellular decisions such as gene expression and cell growth. Using a variety of approaches, he has uncovered new types of proteins that bind metal ions and tied their function to a number of disease-related physiological processes. These insights have led to the development of drugs that work on the proteins.

O’Halloran and his team recently demonstrated essential roles for intracellular zinc fluctuations in the maturation and fertilization of mammalian egg cells. The research group established that the uptake of billions of zinc atoms regulates the stages of meiosis, the process in which chromosomes are copied, paired up and separated to create eggs or sperm. In contrast, zinc must exit the egg rapidly before embryonic development can proceed. These findings may one day be useful in improving in vitro fertilization methods.

O’Halloran is a professor in the departments of chemistry and molecular biosciences. He is also founding director of the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute and director of the Northwestern University Physical Sciences-Oncology Center. O’Halloran earned a B.S. and an M.A. in chemistry from the University of Missouri in 1980 and a Ph.D. in chemistry from Columbia University in 1985. He studied the role metals play in regulating biological processes as a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

O’Halloran’s honors include a Sloan research fellowship, a Guggenheim fellowship, a Searle scholar award, an NIH MERIT award and a Presidential Young Investigator Award. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and the Royal Society of Chemistry. O’Halloran holds 10 patents and is the co-founder of 3 pharmaceutical companies.

For more information or for reasonable accommodation at the lecture, contact Jacqueline Roberts at or (301) 594-6747.—Chris Palmer

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