Newswise — UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Professor Deborah Kelly, a ground-breaking researcher who developed the new field of structural oncology, will join The Pennsylvania State University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering as full professor and Lloyd and Dottie Foehr Huck Chair in Molecular Biophysics. Kelly will also hold a joint appointment with the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences and will serve as the director of the new Center for Structural Oncology (CSO) at Penn State. She will begin in January 2019.

“We are excited and proud to welcome Professor Kelly to the Penn State College of Engineering family. She is a world-class researcher and educator and represents the type of impact-focused scholar the defines our College’s mission,” said Justin Schwartz, Harold and Inge Marcus Dean of Engineering. “As a member of the Penn State faculty, Professor Kelly will provide unrivaled research and educational opportunities for our undergraduate and graduate students, a mentor for our junior faculty, and a world-class collaborator for faculty and research staff across the University.”

Kelly’s background is in cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), molecular biophysics, chemistry and biotechnology. Her research focuses on innovative approaches to studying biological systems from human viruses to cancer, including the creation of new high-resolution molecular imaging technologies.

Kelly’s team was the first to visualize the complete 3D architecture of the breast cancer susceptibility protein, BRCA1, using structural biology tools they invented for that purpose. The team has also determined how cancer-associated mutations in BRCA1 affect its physical properties and performance in human cells, giving rise to aggressive forms of breast cancer.

In doing so, Kelly’s team pioneered a new area of research named “structural oncology.” This exciting new initiative focuses on unraveling the underpinnings of cancer-causing processes by studying their protein players at the atomic scale. Utilizing the state-of-the-art cryo-EM resources found only at Penn State, Kelly and her team will elevate their efforts to new heights in the fight against human cancer.

“She has built a remarkable track record in research, teaching and service, and here at Penn State, Dr. Kelly will become a significant contributor to the University’s interdisciplinary biomedical health science and technology initiatives,” said Cheng Dong, head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Penn State. “Her cancer research work alone has such great potential for the betterment of society.”

With the new CSO, Kelly will build on her past innovations by promoting both an interdisciplinary research approach and an entrepreneurial spirit focused on building collaborations. She will work with researchers from a variety of groups such as biomedical engineering, the Huck Institutes, Materials Research Institute, and the Penn State Cancer Institute.

Via these interdisciplinary collaborations, researchers working in the CSO will develop advanced tools to provide strategic insight in the detection and prevention of breast cancer. In addition, Kelly will continue to explore potential uses for the tools and processes she developed in the detection and prevention of other cancers such as brain tumors and pancreatic cancer. She also expects to work with colleagues researching viruses, including the viruses that cause some forms of cancer.

“Dr. Kelly fits precisely within our strategic vision for converging life sciences, materials, and engineering,” James Marden, associate director of operations, Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences and professor of biology, said. “In addition to her technical prowess, she’s creative, asks excellent research questions, and addresses important issues in health and molecular biology. She will add greatly to our growing cryo-EM community and we are fortunate that she is joining our team.”

Kelly is currently a principal investigator/multiple principal investigator/co-investigator for seven active National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants, including three concurrent multi-million dollar grants from the National Cancer Institute. She is ranked in the top 12 percent of all NIH-funded principal investigators for 2018.

Kelly holds many prestigious awards and honors including the Innovator of the Year Award, Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council (2018); Session Chair, Gordon Research Conference in 3D-EM (2017); Director of Biological Sciences, Microscopy Society of America (2017); Virginia Tech Outstanding Research Award in Biological Sciences (2016); and the Young Investigator Award: Conquer Cancer Now! from The Concern Foundation (2014). She joined the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2013 and has been published in 48 peer-reviewed journals and has been an invited speaker at 55 international/national seminars and conferences. 

Prior to joining Penn State, Kelly was an associate professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. Along with her research duties, she served as a guest lecturer for a variety of courses across Virginia Tech. At Penn State, she will teach BME 450 Biomedical Senior Design and BIOE 512 Cell and Molecular Bioengineering.

Kelly received a bachelor of science in biochemistry from Old Dominion University, a master of science in chemistry from Old Dominion University, and a doctor of philosophy in molecular biophysics from Florida State University. She also served as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School.

“Penn State offers unlimited possibilities to expand our scientific program and contribute to the educational mission of the Biomedical Engineering department,” Kelly said. “We’re also excited about the enormous opportunities to push cryo-EM technology to the next frontier. Using these outstanding resources, the CSO aims to combat the molecular culprits that fuel human cancer and reveal the hidden enemies that cancer cells use to outsmart modern medicine.”