Alicia Pickrell, an assistant professor in the Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience, part of the College of Science, has published a new study in the journal Cell Reports that may bring more understanding to mitochondrial dysfunction in cells through the discovery of a new protein’s function.

“Mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell,” Pickrell said. “Researchers have learned a lot about how mitochondrial dysfunction contributes to energy loss and cell death in neurodegenerative diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and muscle dystrophies. We don’t know how mitochondrial dysfunction impacts new cells being made in the body contributing to cancer or infertility and miscarriage. Cells do not die in those health disorders, but proliferate with bad mitochondria.”

Pickrell and her team discovered that the protein TBK1 serves as scout to surveil and communicate the health of mitochondria during cell division. “If the cell has to clean up damaged mitochondria, cell division stops. If the cell can’t clean up the damaged mitochondria, this protein fails to alert the dividing cell,” she added. “This basic cell biology mechanism has implications in cancer where cells abnormally divide and have dysfunctional mitochondria.”

Pickrell began the study the National Institutes of Health, where she was a post-doctoral researcher before coming to Virginia Tech in 2017. At Virginia Tech, she worked with Lina Ni, also an assistant professor of Neuroscience, and Paul Morton, an assistant professor with the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Also, on the team was Lauren Bochicchio, a graduate student in the Virginia Tech Translational Biology, Medicine and Health program. 

Future research by Pickrell will look into novel mechanisms of the TBK1 protein, and identify if other proteins also perform this scouting function.