A composite image of six faculty portraits

Meet the faces behind UNE’s new Center for Cell Signaling Research

The center is UNE's second NIH-funded Center of Biomedical Research Excellence, cementing the University's status as a biomedical research engine for the state of Maine

The University of New England further cemented its status as a leader in Maine’s biomedical research sphere with the January announcement of a $10.8 million grant to support establishment of the Center for Cell Signaling Research (CCSR), a National of Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE).

This is the second COBRE granted to UNE, building off the success of the Center for Pain Research established in 2012. With this new award, UNE becomes the only institution of higher learning in Maine to boast two of the NIH-funded research centers, further solidifying the University’s role as a biomedical research engine for the state of Maine.

Reflecting the University’s mission to better the health of people and communities, the CCSR will explore the mechanisms governing cellular communication and their ability to influence human disease, paving the way for novel therapeutic interventions to address some of the most pressing health issues of our time, including dementia, diabetes, osteoporosis, and heart disease.

The CCSR will support the work of four biomedical research faculty — Eva Balog, Ph.D., Kathleen Becker, Ph.D., Harry Filippakis, Ph.D., and Luis Queme Cobar, M.D., Ph.D. — and will fund the development of an In Vitro Analytical Core (IVAC) facility that will provide instrumentation and cell line culture abilities to support their vital research.

Here, we introduce you to the faculty and leadership that is bringing this groundbreaking COBRE research to life.

Administrative Staff

Derek Molliver

Derek Molliver, Ph.D., is a professor of biomedical sciences whose work at UNE focuses on the molecular basis of chronic pain. As program director of the CCSR, Molliver will lead a team of faculty researchers investigating health issues such as including osteoporosis, stress and pain, impaired wound healing, and tumor formation. He will also oversee mentorship opportunities for the research project leaders, and lead strategic planning and assessment of the IVAC facility.

Portrait of Derek Molliver

Molliver received his bachelor’s degree from Williams College in 1988 and completed his doctorate in neuroscience at Washington University in St. Louis in 1998. He joined UNE’s College of Osteopathic Medicine in 2014, where he has led research projects investigating the cellular signals that drive chronic pain.

In 2023, Molliver was the recipient of a five-year, $2 million R01 grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to study the role of mitochondria — the “powerhouses of the cell” — in altering the function of pain-sensing neurons, leading to the formation of chronic pain.

Molliver said UNE is uniquely positioned to study such health issues as one of the most rural states in the country and that the work completed in the Center for Cell Signaling Research will eventually help Mainers live more comfortably.

“There is a tremendous amount of excitement about how we can help people to live healthier and have a high quality of life,” he said. “Those are the dramatic new questions for society that this center will be looking into.”

Portrait of Ling Cao

Ling Cao

Leading the IVAC facility is Ling Cao, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of biomedical sciences in the University of New England’s College of Osteopathic Medicine.

The core facility will support the CCSR’s research by providing outstanding instrumentation and innovation services, including primary cell and cell line culture facilities, functional imaging, and transcriptional and protein-based analysis.

As director of the IVAC, Cao will provide consultation to researchers on experimental design, technical approaches, interpretation of results, and best practices for responsible conduct of research.

Cao is an immunologist whose research focuses on chronic pain. Her lab research explores injury-induced neuropathic pain and HIV infection-associated neuropathy with the goal of identifying strategies for improving pain management.

Prior to joining UNE COM in 2007, Cao completed her training in clinical medicine at Beijing Medical University and subsequently completed Ph.D. training at the State University of New York at Albany (SUNY Albany). She later finished her post-doctoral training at the University of Rochester Medical Center and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

In 2023, Cao was awarded a five-year, $1.7 million grant from the NIH to research the development of a novel drug to alleviate nerve pain in patients living with HIV. She is also one of two leaders on a joint research project to establish a first-of-its-kind comprehensive registry for Mainers living with chronic pain, which affects about 30% of Maine residents.

She said the CCSR IVAC facility hopes to grow through collaborations with other research centers and core facilities around the state in order to serve the broader scientific community in the near future. 

Research Project Leaders

Eva Rose Balog

Eva Rose Balog, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry, is a well-known fixture of UNE’s research ecosystem, having secured grant funding to bolster Maine’s biotechnology industry and serving as one of three inaugural members of the Portland Laboratory for Biotechnology and Health Sciences.

Eva Balog poses for a portrait in her lab

Balog’s research interests lie in the development of protein sensors for biomanufacturing with the aim of developing new treatments for disease. Her research in the Center for Cell Signaling Research will focus on methods for improving wound healing through newfound techniques in regenerative medicine.

According to Balog, current therapeutic approaches for wound healing are often inadequate because they do not address the underlying causes of impaired healing. Regenerative medicine strategies — including stem cells, growth factors, and scaffolds — offer solutions to that by promoting the body’s own natural healing processes and improving tissue regeneration.

Specifically, Balog will focus on the role of poorly understood growth factor receptors in the formation of healthy blood vessels, which are necessary to promote wound healing. The goal of the research is to identify the signals involved with the intention of developing elastin-like polymers that can be used in biomaterials to promote proper wound healing.

Such biomaterials, she said, can help reduce a patient’s risk of infection and improve their quality of life.

“This is a really hopeful project in terms of the promise of regenerative medicine and our ability to understand how cells communicate and what they need so that we can direct cell behavior, growth, and differentiation in the context of healing,” Balog remarked. “This new center serves as an engine of growth that is well timed given our extension into the biotechnology sphere. It is all happening at a very good inflection point.”

Kathleen Becker

Kathleen Becker, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences whose research interest lies in the novel mechanisms governing bone formation and how dysregulation of these pathways leads to osteoporosis and increased risk of fracture. 

Portrait of Kathleen Becker against trees

Her COBRE research will examine the molecular pathways associated with bone formation with the aim of developing novel treatments for osteoporosis and other bone density disorders.

About 10 million people in the United States are living with osteoporosis, and 43 million in total experience some form of low bone density. Both conditions increase the risk of fractures that carry a 25% mortality risk for patients over 50.

According to Becker, most current medications for osteoporosis primarily focus on reducing the breakdown of bone density, but research into therapeutics that can rebuild bone is relatively limited. Her work in the COBRE will focus on the role of a protein called Dock7 in the formation and reabsorption of bone tissues and the implications this pathway may have in developing new treatments and preventions for osteoporosis and bone density loss.

“Targeting bone formation is a really underutilized mechanism of treating osteoporosis,” Becker explained. “We are trying to have a better understanding of these processes to develop new treatment options to help patients live a better quality of life.”

Becker said her research represents the work of a growing community of bone researchers in Maine dedicated to developing better treatments for the state’s aging population.

“Getting the word out to try to understand what a dire problem this is will help bring new researchers into the realm and deal with this silent problem,” she said. “This new COBRE is focused on problems of aging, and UNE is really primed to be a part of this niche research community.”

Harry Filippakis 

Harry Filippakis, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences whose research focuses on cellular metabolism and the signaling pathways involved in human disease.

Portrait of Harry Filippakis

His research within the new COBRE will focus on the development of novel therapeutics in the treatment of tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC), a rare genetic disease in which tumors develop in multiple organs, including the brain, lungs, and kidneys. Such tumors, while not malignant, can cause secondary ailments such as epilepsy and breathing difficulties.

There is no known cure for the disease, though Filippakis and his team hope to identify potential drug candidates for treatment by studying the metabolic and cellular pathways that feed TSC-deficient (disease-causing) cells.

Through their research, the group has observed that TSC-deficient cells survive and proliferate through a process known as macropinocytosis, whereby they “drink up” their surrounding nutrient-rich fluid.

The team found that TSC-deficient cells have a particular affinity for the amino acid tryptophan and that blocking the absorption of tryptophan inhibits the growth of disease-causing cells in TSC. Filippakis’ research in the CCSR will focus specifically on methods that block the absorption of tryptophan, effectively starving the cells of their nutrients, in the pursuit of medications that may have the same effect and open doors to a cure.

“This research is intended to make discoveries that directly help patients, and it is great to be able to work so closely with the other research project leaders who bring very diverse expertise than mine,” Filippakis said. “This new COBRE has materialized to make discoveries that will not only benefit us and our research but the entire medical community. This step will really bring UNE to the forefront of scientific research.”

Luis Queme Cobar

The link between stress and chronic pain is the focus of a COBRE research project led by Luis Queme Cobar, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences.

Portrait of Luis Queme Cobar

Queme Cobar’s research in the new Center for Cell Signaling Research will focus on identifying the stress-related signals that induce pain in sensory neurons via satellite glial cells, which envelop neurons in the peripheral nervous system. The project will focus on better understanding the influence the cells have on chronic pain, an area that has not been extensively studied, he said.

The study hopes to inform new therapeutics that can reduce the activation of the satellite glial cells by external stressors and impede instances of chronic pain. Current treatment options are limited, Queme Cobar said, primarily to addictive opioids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like aspirin and ibuprofen, that can cause gastrointestinal issues with extended use.

“The main idea is to develop new drugs to treat chronic pain. What we need to identify are the potential changes in gene expression that satellite glial cells undergo when stress is happening and if they facilitate chronic pain,” he explained. “If we can do this, we can target them pharmacologically and find different options to treat pain that may not rely on the current therapies that we have.”

Queme Cobar will engage medical students in his research, an opportunity he said would have benefitted him in his time as a medical student.

“We are training osteopathic physicians who can address health problems in a holistic manner. If students can get early exposure to biomedical science research and data analysis, that will make them better physicians,” he remarked. “This project and the COBRE award is a huge benefit to UNE and the field of osteopathic medicine.”