BLACKSBURG, Va., July 7, 2011 - Stephanie Nicole “Nikki” Lewis, a graduate student in the Interdisciplinary PhD Program in Genetics, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology (GBCB), has been awarded the prestigious Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) for Predoctoral Research through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for her study of a cellular signaling receptor that is associated with chronic inflammatory diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Lewis is applying a combination of computational modeling and experimental methods to identify molecules that can activate peroxisome proliferator activated receptor gamma (PPARγ), which is a therapeutic target for suppressing inflammation. The search for drugs targeting the receptor is urgently needed since use of current drugs to treat type II diabetes by binding to PPAR γ , like the recently restricted Avandia® (GlaxoSmithKline), results in adverse side effects. A goal of Lewis’ research is to identify novel, orally active naturally occurring compounds with therapeutic potential due to their insulin-sensitizing and anti-inflammatory actions. The computational methods are used to quickly and inexpensively screen large numbers of compounds, from which a small number are selected for experimental validation in vitro and through pre-clinical animal studies.

This project entitled “Virtual Screening Development to Complement Experimental Screening for PPAR Modulators to Treat Type II Diabetes Mellitus” is primarily funded through the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) of the NIH.

Lewis is working jointly with David Bevan in the Department of Biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Josep Bassaganya-Riera in the Nutritional Immunology and Molecular Medicine Laboratory (NIMML) at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute.

“The strength of Nikki’s research lies not only in the combination of computational and experimental methods, but also in her approach that will unravel details of the events that accompany PPARγ activation, thereby making the drug discovery process more rational,” Bevan said.

“Nikki’s successful NIH proposal builds upon ongoing collaborative research between Dr. Bevan and NIMML aimed at streamlining the drug and nutraceutical discovery process. In addition, Nikki’s project leverages and extends the scope of studies conducted by the Center for Modeling Immunity to Enteric Pathogens (MIEP). Specifically, this effort is in line with the goal of discovering novel broad-based immune therapeutics for gastrointestinal infectious diseases by creating computational models of the mucosal immune system and sets the stage for multiscale modeling in drug discovery.” Bassaganya-Riera said. Additional information about MIEP can be found at

Lewis earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Christopher Newport University. Lewis is affiliated with the Virginia Tech Post-baccalaureate Research and Education Program (PREP) and the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD), where she currently serves as a mentor to several students. Once she completes her PhD, she hopes to obtain a faculty position at a research university, where she can continue to conduct research on immune-mediated diseases while teaching and mentoring.

About the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences:

Nationally ranked among the top research institutions of its kind, Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences focuses on the science and business of living systems through learning, discovery, and engagement. The college’s comprehensive curriculum gives more than 2,400 students in a dozen academic departments a balanced education that ranges from food and fiber production to economics to human health. Students learn from the world’s leading agricultural scientists, who bring the latest science and technology into the classroom. Visit the College at

About Virginia Bioinformatics Institute:

The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech is a premier bioinformatics, computational biology, and systems biology research facility that uses transdisciplinary approaches to science combining information technology, biology, and medicine. These approaches are used to interpret and apply vast amounts of biological data generated from basic research to some of today’s key challenges in the biomedical, environmental, and agricultural sciences. With more than 240 highly trained multidisciplinary, international personnel, research at the institute involves collaboration in diverse disciplines such as mathematics, computer science, biology, plant pathology, biochemistry, systems biology, statistics, economics, synthetic biology, and medicine. The large amounts of data generated by this approach are analyzed and interpreted to create new knowledge that is disseminated to the world’s scientific, governmental, and wider communities.



Thea Glidden
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Tiffany Trent

Published by Tiffany Trent, July 07, 2011