2020 SRF Summer Scholar Profile: Claire Cunningham

Claire Cunningham

SRF Summer Scholar, Class of 2020

Buck Institute for Research on Aging

Hello! I am Claire Cunningham, a rising senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studying Molecular and Cellular biology with a minor in Art & Design. My home lab in Champaign is headed by Makoto Inoue who supports a team of impressive researchers dedicated to understanding disease progression in Multiple Sclerosis (MS). My work in Dr. Inoue’s lab focuses on identifying immunological factors that lead to neuron damage within a mouse model of MS. My work as a SRF Summer Scholar has allowed me to expand my research interests by exposing me to the world of neuropeptides!

Under Dr. Jennifer Garrison’s mentorship this summer, I have had the opportunity to contribute to research spearheaded by Dr. Jackie Lo. Jackie’s research is focused on understanding how small endogenous amino acid chains, called neuropeptides, are processed during biogenesis. This project in particular studies which neuropeptides are being processed by the enzyme carboxypeptidase E (CPE), in Caenorhabditis elegans, a type of microscopic worm. For my project, I analyzed and organized the neuropeptides Jackie identified, working to elucidate the disparities between mature and immature peptides found in control worms and CPE-deficient worm strains. The differences and similarities between the worms’ peptide profiles allowed us to better categorize which peptides are processed by CPE and which are not. It also helped us to identify novel neuropeptides experimentally. Through this analysis we were able to create a more accurate picture of how functional neuropeptides are created as well as add to the list of known neuropeptides. As we better understand the role of neuropeptides in disease progression and intervention, medicine will look towards peptide therapeutics to alleviate disease symptoms or even the condition itself. In order for this revolutionary work to succeed, it requires knowledge of neuropeptide expression, regulation, and function, all of which are rooted in neuropeptide biogenesis.

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