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UND biomedical scientist zeroes in on calcium and its link to abnormal bodily functions such as dry mouth and cancer

Posted on 3/4/2016

Professor Brij Singh Wins UND Foundation/Thomas J. Clifford Faculty Achievement Award for Excellence in Research (2016) from University of North Dakota on Vimeo.

Brij Singh's work is certainly complex. His aim is anything but.

"The ultimate goal of my research is to find cures for diseases," said Singh, a biomedical scientist at the University of North Dakota's School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS).

Recently, Singh received a high honor from UND when he was named recipient of the Thomas J. Clifford Faculty Achievement Award for Research Excellence from the school at its 133rd Founders Day celebration. Singh, who has been at UND since 2003, explains that the award validates that what he and his lab are doing is paying off.

Another sign of the importance of Singh's work is that he National Institutes of Health (NIH) has continuously funded Singh's research for the past 15 years. Singh's lab is part of the SMHS's Department of Biomedical Sciences.

Singh's research primarily focuses on the mineral calcium. In the past his studies have dealt with how calcium levels in cells control the secretion of saliva, but today he is focusing more on the channels calcium flows through and what that does to and for the human body.

Important mineral

Singh first got interested in "calcium signaling" while he was pursuing his Ph.D. in Germany. He was looking for different topics to research and calcium piqued his interest because it touches every bodily function imaginable. Everything requires calcium, he says, and that's why the mineral is extremely important.

At UND, his lab is trying to understand not only which bodily channels involve calcium but how they can be regulated as well. They study diseases such as cancer and try to see which channels are more important and how they might be modified.

Brij Singh working in his lab. Photo by Jackie Lorentz. Brij Singh working in his lab. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

Singh's current focus stems from research he had done previously on dry mouth, which is a result of decreased saliva flow from underfunctioning salivary glands. Through that research, specifically how dry mouth conditions rely on calcium channels for saliva reproduction, he was able to learn more about the importance of these channels.

"If the calcium isn't working properly the first thing that will happen is the cell will start dying," Singh says. "Calcium is absolutely essential for normal physiology."

Controlling calcium

But too much of a good thing can be harmful.

A major role of these channels is to transport the mineral magnesium. Magnesium and calcium are very similar and flow through the same channels. In terms of cancer development, however, it's not good when the channels carry more calcium than magnesium. So Singh's lab is attempting to spur the flow of magnesium and shut down the processes that bring too much calcium. To accomplish this intervention, they're using molecular biology, gene mutation and gene therapy.

"By doing this we are able to slow down the growth of the cells, which can decrease the rate of cancer and so on," Singh said.

Singh says calcium problems are not very easy to diagnose on the frontlines of medicine or treat right now, which is one of the reasons he has chosen to do his research on this mineral. His hope is that the research eventually will lead to new therapies for patients.

Fresh air

Singh also is continuing is work on dry mouth and how calcium levels in cells control the secretion of saliva. He recently received $1.7 million from the NIH to do this work in addition to another $380,000 in NIH funding to study the role of certain proteins in salivary gland inflammation. He is partnering with the SMHS Department of Biomedical Sciences colleague Bibhuti Mishra on the latter NIH project.

Originally from India, Singh, his wife and son lived in Washington, D.C., before coming to UND and Grand Forks. They moved to North Dakota in search of a less polluted environment when his son's asthma started acting up.

Singh's wife currently is a family physician working for Mayo Clinic.

Amanda Menzies
University & Public Affairs student writer

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