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Nirinjini Naidoo, Ph.D.

Photo of Nirinjini Naidoo, Ph.D.Nirinjini Naidoo, Ph.D.
Research Assistant Professor of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Biomarker for Sleep Loss: A Proteomic Determination

Administered by the NHLBI Division of Lung Diseases, Lung Biology and Disease Branch
FY 2009 Recovery Act Funding: $500,000

Additional Funding:
Biomarker for Sleep Loss: A Proteomic Determination
Administered by the NHLBI Division of Lung Diseases, Lung Biology and Disease Branch
FY 2010 Recovery Act Funding: $500,000
More information about the grant
Total funding: $1,000,000

Dr. Nirinjini Naidoo grew up in South Africa, where she drew daily inspiration from her family. Her father, a classical scholar, fed the young Dr. Naidoo's desire to read voraciously. Over time, she was drawn to books about energetic, creative women in science like Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin.

"Those stories really stuck with me," Dr. Naidoo said, noting that she is intensely curious and always "wants to know." The attributes suit her well as a frontier scientist in the world of sleep research. They may be at odds with her getting sleep, though, she admitted.

"I sometimes wake up at 3 a.m. and send myself an email about a newly hatched experiment."

Research Focus: Humans spend about one-third of their lives asleep. But according to Dr. Naidoo, many of us do not appreciate that sleep is a vital part of healthy living and that our bodies accomplish several important tasks during that time.

"Sleep is definitely not just an 'off' state," Dr. Naidoo said. "Research is telling us that our bodies are actually very busy when we sleep - re-stocking cellular components, consolidating memories, and strengthening connections between nerve cells in the brain."

Dr. Naidoo's research interest in sleep came fairly recently. A chemist who specializes in studying the structures and functions of proteins, she did postdoctoral research in the area of circadian rhythms - the 24-hour cycles that tune body systems with the light-and-dark cycle of our environment.

Matching her scientific skills to what she saw as a fascinating question, Dr. Naidoo decided to look at the molecular features of sleep. What proteins are talking to each other? Which genes and molecules are active .... or asleep themselves?

Grant Close-Up: Dr. Naidoo's Recovery Act grant is a comprehensive search for "biomarkers" of sleep loss. Biomarkers are substances that indicate a particular state or process. They can be used to signify health problems - high cholesterol is one, for example. Or, biomarkers can denote a normal activity, like growth or sleep.

But as useful as they sound, accurate biomarkers can be very difficult to find. That's because so many factors can affect how the body functions: our diet, whether we exercise, what medicines we take, and our genetic make-up. All these components can influence body systems independently of each other, which makes finding telltale biomarkers challenging.

You could think of Dr. Naidoo's approach as a variant on the childhood matching game "same and different." In earlier experiments, she and other researchers identified people who were different types of sleepers. Some recovered quickly and fully from sleep deprivation and could easily pass a question-and-answer knowledge test. Others, Dr. Naidoo explained, reacted very differently and made several mistakes on the same relatively simple test. In that earlier experiment, she and leading sleep researcher Allan I. Pack, Ph.D., also at the University of Pennyslvania, collected blood samples from all the study participants. They will now use a high-tech chemical analytical tool called mass spectrometry to search for molecules that differ between the two different types of sleepers.

After two years, Dr. Naidoo plans to have a profile of sleepiness - a snapshot of all the proteins and other molecules in blood that define sleepy or non-sleepy. In general, biomarkers can useful non-invasive tools for detecting illness and spotting disease risk. She hopes the sleep biomarkers will help researchers and physicians track sleep deprivation or the role of sleep loss in various diseases.

Economic Impact: Dr. Naidoo used Recovery Act funds to buy several pieces of state-of-the-art scientific equipment, such as a powerful microscope and machines that screen blood and other fluids for their component proteins. She is especially excited about the fact that this funding is enabling her to bring new blood into the field of sleep research.

"One of my new research specialists working on this project - a recent chemistry graduate - is now applying to graduate school to study sleep," said Dr. Naidoo. "It's so important that we get new thinking and new methods into understanding one of the most fundamental processes in our daily lives."

By Alison Davis, Ph.D.

Last Updated:August 10, 2010

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