By Yamhilette Licon Muñoz

Latinas Who Lead

UNM Biochemist Karlett Parra Melds Mentoring With Cutting-Edge Research

The "potential of hydrogen" - commonly known as pH - is defined as the concentration of hydrogen ions in a solution. It is a measure of acidity or basicity.

In cells, pH is extremely regulated, and it turns out that many normal cellular processes rely in particular pH concentrations. Accordingly, its deregulation contributes to (or causes) various diseases.

But what controls pH levels inside the cells?

Karlett Parra, PhD, professor and chair of UNM's Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, has devoted her life to studying one of the key players in pH regulation: an enzyme called vacuolar-H+-ATPase (better known as V-ATPase).

"V-ATPase is a very interesting nano-motor," Parra says. "It uses the energy of ATP [adenosine triphosphate] to pump protons, generating and sustaining different pH levels inside the cell."

"The regulation of pH by V-ATPase is crucial for several physiological processes, such as sperm maturation, urinary acidification, lysosomal acidification and the uptake of iron and cholesterol, among others."

Born and raised in Venezuela, Karlett Parra is the first scientist in her family.

"Ever since I discovered science, it became my passion," she says. "My family was confused about how committed I was to pursue a career in research."

Parra earned her PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology from SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y. There, she started studying V-ATPases under the mentorship of Patricia Kane, PhD. "It was the best decision of my life," she says.

Parra joined The University of New Mexico School of Medicine in 2007, where her research has centered on the different roles of V-ATPase in physiology and pathophysiology. Moving to Albuquerque from the Northeast was a welcome transition, she says.

"I love how blue the sky is, and the Sandia Mountains," Parra says. "They remind me of my hometown."

Parra was named chair of the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology in 2012. It was a fresh challenge.

"Being in charge of a department is like trying to move forward a big mountain," Parra explains. "It's working with a group of very talented professionals toward a shared goal. It needs the work, focus and engagement of everyone. I'm very proud of the department and it has been very satisfying to see it grow."

In her laboratory, Parra studies in yeast models (Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Candida albicans) the molecular mechanisms that regulate or are regulated by V-ATPase, as well as breast and prostate cancer cell lines.

She has found that the pharmacologic or genetic inhibition of V-ATPase diminishes the virulence of the fungal pathogen C. albicans and disrupts several tumorigenic processes, such as invasion and metastasis in breast and prostate cancer cells.

She believes that several important pathological processes involve pH regulation - and that the study of V-ATPase may one day lead to the development of novel therapeutic targets.

As a scientist and mentor, Parra finds that one of her greatest rewards comes from working with students.

"There are great students at UNM," she says. "Seeing some of them grow and become successful scientists is a great satisfaction. Working with women of different backgrounds - including women from a culture similar to mine - and watching them follow their own path is priceless."

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