Laura Kiessling in her office in the Chemistry Building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2007. Courtesy Jeff Miller/University of Wisconsin–Madison.
The number of genes that different animals have does not fully explain the differences between them. Chemical reactions between the various proteins that genes make could account for much of the diversity of life. Laura Kiessling (b. 1960) studies the protein interactions that may give rise to the complexity that differentiates species from one another.
Brought up in Lake Mills, Wisconsin, Kiessling had fun playing with the science kits that she and her younger brothers received as presents. Instead of following the printed instructions, though, they improvised their own projects using the supplied materials––often with unforeseen results!
Enjoying mathematics and science throughout her school career, and encouraged by her teachers, she attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison for one year. Despite her relatively unsophisticated small-town background, she found to her surprise that she could excel in university science courses. A trip during spring break to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a friend whose sister was attending the school opened Kiessling’s eyes to an even wider world of science where women were, by the 1970s, better represented in science courses than at Wisconsin. She applied to MIT as a transfer student and was accepted.
At MIT Kiessling became excited about organic chemistry in particular. From MIT she progressed to Yale University for her Ph.D., then on to the California Institute of Technology for a postgraduate fellowship, and finally back to the University of Wisconsin in 1991, where she is a professor in both the chemistry and biochemistry departments.
Laura Kiessling (right) talks with one of her graduate students in her research lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2007. Courtesy Jeff Miller/University of Wisconsin–Madison.
In her research Kiessling uses her training as an organic chemist to design and synthesize molecules that mimic various natural molecules that take part in the life and functioning of the body’s cells. Tracking what happens when the synthetic molecules enter into, or in some cases block, particular bodily processes helps understand these processes at the molecular level. Kiessling investigates all the forms in which proteins occur in our bodies; for example, proteins in combination with chemical groups that carry phosphorus or that have the form of sugars.
These last, the glycoproteins, have been a long-term interest of hers. Many life processes depend on cells sticking to each other: for example, immune responses to bacteria, viruses, and other invaders; the spread of cancer from cell to cell; and the clumping of fibers in the brain in Alzheimer’s disease. Such sticking is made possible by protein and sugar molecules that stud the surfaces of cells. For example, white blood cells, one of the body’s primary defenders against injury, respond by moving out of the blood stream to the site of injury, but first they must be slowed down by sticking to the walls of blood vessels. This is accomplished by proteins on the surface of the white blood cells that grab glycoproteins on the cells of the walls of blood vessels. But the proteins on the white blood cells (called L-selectins) are also what cause excessive swelling at the site of an injury. Kiessling has designed synthetic glycoproteins that trick the L-selectins into binding to them. Once clumped, the L-selectins naturally drop off cells and can no longer cause swelling. This way, the white blood cells are able to do their job but without creating painful swelling. Here, as in much of her research, there are possible applications for new medicines that might, for example, be effective in treating the rheumatoid arthritis that afflicts so many people, young and old.
Occasionally Kiessling is joined in her projects by her biochemist husband, Ronald Raines. Raines is also a professor at the University of Wisconsin. The couple has a daughter named Kyra, meaning “shining light” in Persian, and which is also a synthesis of the first few letters of her parents’ last names (Kie-Ra).