Pharmacy professor receives NIH grant to study interactions between proteins

Associate Professor Carlos Villalba-Galea and graduate research assistant Moses Kamwela ’26

Associate Professor Carlos Villalba-Galea and graduate research assistant Moses Kamwela ’26

A University of the Pacific pharmacy professor is conducting research to better understand the body’s molecular systems with a recently awarded two-year $364,250 grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The research led by Carlos Villalba-Galea, an associate professor of physiology and pharmacology in the Thomas J. Long School of Pharmacy, could lay the groundwork for future drug development and new approaches to treating diseases.

“Diseases are a complicated concept. When people talk about cancer, there are hundreds of types of cancer, and they're all different,” Villalba-Galea said. “The treatment mostly depends on the organ that is being targeted, but what is missing is the molecular basis.

“When you take a drug, you’re not treating an organ. You’re targeting a type of protein or molecule in that organ. If you don't understand how the interaction is happening, it's a shot in the dark.”

Villalba-Galea is working to understand interactions between proteins—the “nuts and bolts” of the body—at the most fundamental level. “If you compare this with going to the moon, we're learning how to fly a kite, which is important,” he explained.

His work is focused on two pairs of proteins which turn electrical signals off and on in the nervous and cardiovascular systems. Villalba-Galea’s previous research discovered interactions between the pairs, which were previously thought not to talk to one another, establishing a novel paradigm for these specific proteins.

“Our novel finding constitutes a shift in our understanding of how mutations in one of these proteins can alter that activity of the other pair, affecting cellular electrical signaling,” Villalba-Galea said. “What we are trying to figure out is, is this physiologically relevant? We don’t know that yet.”

Graduate research assistant Moses Kamwela ’26 is working closely with him, gaining invaluable hands-on experience in the lab and developing crucial critical thinking skills.

“Sometimes things don’t turn out as expected, and you have to figure out what’s going on or what conclusion you can draw from an unexpected result,” Kamwela said.

“That should be the center of our education for graduate students,” Villalba-Galea said, adding that such experiences push students to dig deeper and question what it means to “be correct.”

“You see it all the time with students. They do an experiment, and they ask me, ‘Is this correct?’ and I say, ‘We don’t know yet. That’s the reason we need to be doing this research.’ There are no answers in the book. This didactic work is hard.”

Villalba-Galea’s funding from the National Institutes of Health is one of several prestigious grants to Pacific, which had one of its most successful years for government grants in school history. Other professors are using grant funding to explore antidotes for opioid overdoses, mosquito-borne diseases and galaxy formation, among other research areas.