Dr. Shaun K. Olsen receives UT System award to discover innovative solutions to health problems

Shaun K. Olsen, PhD, has been awarded a $1 million UT System Faculty STARs award to conduct innovative research to better understand the molecular mechanisms of diseases and advance drug discovery efforts for treatment.

Faculty photo of Shaun K. Olsen
Shaun K. Olsen, PhD

The award will allow Dr. Olsen to obtain state-of-the-art equipment for his laboratory. He and his research team study the molecular mechanisms of ubiquitin (Ub) and ubiquitin-like protein (UbI) signaling and their role in cancer and other human disorders.

“The dysregulation of Ub signaling is implicated in a number of human disorders and the pathway is a validated target for therapeutic intervention in cancer. Our goal is to use the research knowledge we gain to guide drug discovery efforts targeting this pathway,” Dr. Olsen said.

Advanced structural biology equipment such as cryo-electron microscopy, X-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance will supplement the existing infrastructure at UT Health San Antonio.

Dr. Olsen said these cutting-edge resources will enhance drug discovery efforts focused on the identification of small molecules targeting Ub signaling with the potential for advancement to clinical trials and ultimately the treatment of human diseases.

“This award provides a significant boost to both the basic science and translational components of my research program. This includes understanding how homeostasis is maintained in healthy individuals and how dysregulation of these mechanisms leads to disease states,” Dr. Olsen explained.

In addition, this award will help Dr. Olsen establish a Center of Excellence for the Structural Biology of Human Diseases. He said the center is expected to open next summer.

“The center will facilitate collaborative interactions among faculty in diverse areas of science and advance drug discovery efforts targeting cancer, metabolic and neurogenerative disorders,” Dr. Olsen said.

Dr. Olsen is a structural biologist and serves as the director of the Structural Biology Core Facilities and deputy director of the biomolecular mechanisms of medicine discipline in the Integrated Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program. He is an associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Structural Biology in the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine.

Dr. Olsen and other researchers from UT Health San Antonio, along with Polish scientists, laid out a novel rationale for COVID-19 drug design – blocking a molecular “scissor” that the virus uses for production and to disable human proteins crucial to the immune response. The report was published in the October 2020 issue of Science Advances.

Dr. Olsen also has received several extramural grants, including a $4 million Recruitment of Rising Stars award from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas in 2020.

Prior to joining UT Health San Antonio in 2020, he was an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the Medical University of South Carolina and served as the director of the Structural Biology Center there.

Dr. Olsen is an investigator with the Mays Cancer Center, Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute and the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases. He works with the Center for Innovative Drug Discovery, a research center offered jointly by UT Health San Antonio and The University of Texas at San Antonio.

“I am extremely grateful for the resources provided to my research program through the UT System Faculty STARS award,” Dr. Olsen said. “An investment in these instruments and endeavors will put UT Health San Antonio at the forefront of structural biology to identify innovative solutions to health problems, such as metabolic syndromes and cancer, that are particularly prevalent in South Texas.”

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