Over the past three years, there’s been a shift in Tim Lei’s research interests. When he joined the college in 2007 as an assistant professor in electrical engineering. His research involved catalytic analysis on the molecular level—trying to understand how heavy-metal catalysts convert carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide using advanced laser spectroscopy techniques.” But in 2004, Lei was diagnosed with stage 1 lymphoma. After going through treatment and recovery his perspective began to change.
“After I was diagnosed with cancer I thought, maybe I could use some of my research techniques to further explore that area,” says Lei. “I started to learn more about the biosciences, and the more I learn, the more I find that my optical/spectroscopy training from my previous life is directly applicable to this research.”
He has since been awarded a prestigious K25 National Institutes of Health award for his research in chronic kidney disease. Lei uses advanced microscopy techniques to look at how one protein interacts with another in a live cell.
“For patients with chronic kidney disease, their phosphate levels are imbalanced,” explains Lei. “Proteins absorb phosphates, and if the body has too many phosphates, you want them to get out of the body so they don’t form plaques and clog arteries. However, how this works molecularly is unknown.”
In the cell membranes, there are concentrated lipid nanostructures called lipid rafts, which are considered to be the interaction center for proteins. Lei uses correlational microscopic techniques to try and understand how proteins interact within the lipid rafts and under which conditions proteins get in/come out of rafts.
“The idea is that we want to control the mechanism to add/remove proteins from lipid rafts so that the kidney functions in a proper way,” he says. The hope is to provide better treatment outcomes or to develop more imaging techniques so that researchers can learn more about the disease.
In addition to his work with proteins, Lei is conducting research in two other areas. The first involves developing imaging techniques to help identify early glaucoma and macular degeneration. He is applying advanced imaging techniques to look into the cornea and retinas to understand how these diseases occur, how to help patients identify the diseases and how to help doctors treat them.
The second deals with the brain and how it works. Lei is creating new tools, including an iPhone and Android app, to help understand the brain and to provide modeling as to how it works. The hope is not just to gain a better understanding of this complex organ, but to help treat diseases like Parkinson’s.
Through all of his research Lei is focused on the end result—helping to better treat these diseases. He relishes the benefits of partnering with doctors from the CU School of Medicine in the departments of ophthalmology, renal medicine and physiology.
“Many times, engineers work only within their discipline, and they often design devices that don’t work in real life,” he says. “I think it’s critical to work with doctors who understand the problem so that we can provide a quality engineering solution that will become a real application and help patients or advance medical science.”
Today, Lei is cancer free and enjoys spending time with his family when he’s not in the lab or teaching. He also plays electric guitars and considers working with undergraduate students to develop special guitar pedals using signal processing techniques.