Chris Emfinger Receives 2023-24 Boyer Award

Chris EmfingerChris Emfinger, postdoctoral researcher in the Attie Lab, is the recipient of the 2023-24 Boyer Award for Postdoctoral Excellence in Biochemistry. Each year, the Department of Biochemistry presents the Boyer Award to a postdoctoral researcher to recognize their excellence in research. The award was made possible by Professor Paul D. Boyer, who earned a Ph.D. (1943) from the department.

Emfinger’s research explores the genetic drivers behind the regulation of insulin secretion. His research aims to identify proteins associated with insulin secretion, building a deeper understanding of a complex pathway.

Insulin is a hormone produced by beta-cells, which cluster together to form pancreatic islets. Proper regulation of insulin secretion is essential for metabolic health in humans and other animals. Insulin deficiency or a dampened response to insulin can result in diabetes.

As a doctoral student at Washington University, Emfinger’s research aimed to better understand the physiology and function of islet cells in zebrafish. After hearing lectures from his future postdoctoral advisor, Alan Attie, at the annual Midwest Islet Club Meeting, Emfinger became interested in expanding his toolbox for understanding how islet cells impact metabolic function. He joined the Attie Lab to continue his investigation of these cells while building new skills in genetic analysis and bioinformatics that he hopes to incorporate into his own lab in the future.

“One of the things I am enjoying about my research is that I have the opportunity to integrate all of the different pieces that I have collected along the way,” says Emfinger. “It’s just about figuring out how to interrogate different traits and different genes so that we can connect the dots. My time in the Attie Lab has helped me build both knowledge and skills to be able to do that.”

In a body with well-regulated insulin secretion, levels of insulin oscillate over the course of the day. Emfinger’s research includes gathering information about the mechanics of what happens in the islets when insulin secretion becomes dysregulated. In pancreatic beta-cells, calcium plays a key role in triggering the secretion of insulin in response to the presence of glucose and other nutrients. By measuring calcium levels, Emfinger and his colleagues in the Attie Lab and Merrins Lab (Department of Biomolecular Chemistry) have been tracking how different proteins produced in beta-cells impact insulin secretion. The cells in their studies came from genetically diverse populations of male and female mice to mirror genetic diversity and sex-based differences found in human populations. This diversity affords the researchers a more global understanding insulin regulation.

After identifying which genes are involved in producing proteins that regulate insulin secretion in mice, they were able to identify some analogous genes in human islet cells. The result is a catalog of 480 proteins that Emfinger says may lead to insights into insulin regulation. “These 480 proteins may be worth taking a deeper look at,” says Emfinger. “My current work is assessing which ones will be most interesting to start with.”

But Emfinger emphasizes that behind these promising findings are investigations that did not pan out as expected. “I began my postdoctoral position looking at a specific gene, Zfp148. I was able to determine that loss of function of the Zfp148 gene led a greater abundance of transporters and enzymes that are important in the cellular nutrient responses that trigger the release of insulin. So, losing Zfp148 function results in islets secreting more insulin. Experiments like these have deepened our understanding of islet biology. But for all of these findings, there were other experiments that did not yield interesting results. That’s just the nature of this kind of research. It’s really rewarding when we find something and it’s really frustrating when we don’t.”

Emfinger’s receipt of the Boyer Award is all the more meaningful because of the amount of tenacity, perseverance, and creativity required to move beyond the dead ends that he and all of his fellow postdocs in the Department of Biochemistry encounter. “I’m very honored to get this award,” says Emfinger. “And I also feel so lucky to work in a community of postdoctoral researchers who are all deserving of recognition for their hard work and the depth of their research.”

In addition to the Boyer Award, Emfinger has been awarded several awards and grants, including support from the NIH Metabolism and Nutrition Training Program grant T32 (award number: T32DK007665) and a postdoctoral fellowship from the American Diabetes Association (award number: 7-21-PDF-157).

Emfinger will share his research findings at the annual Paul D. Boyer Lecture on Friday, January 26, 2024 at 3:00 p.m. in room 1211 of the Hector F. DeLuca Biochemical Sciences Building. The lecture will be followed by a poster session featuring the research of graduate students in the Integrated Program in Biochemistry.