Yehia Mehcref

Robert A. Welch Chair in Chemistry, Texas Tech Univ.

Yehia Mechref, a Horn Distinguished Professor in Texas Tech University's Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, was named to a Welch Chair last year. He also serves as an associate vice president of research and innovation and the director of the Center for Biotechnology & Genomics at Texas Tech.

His primary research focus is glycans/glycoproteins and their role in cancer, neurodegeneration, and other diseases – difficult research problems he likes to call “challenging.”

“I don’t want to scare anyone off,” he laughed. “We need more researchers involved in this area, pushing the limits of what we can see. While definitely challenging, dynamic new technologies are making more advances possible all the time – and the insights gained are critical to improving health, not just in life-threatening diseases but also life-altering maladies such as osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome.”

Glycans are sugars that decorate the outside of all human cells and play a key role in the cellular recognition pathways that regulate the body’s basic biological functions. Through his work in glycomics and glycoproteomics, Dr. Mechref seeks to understand how glycosylation functions in the immune responsec, cellular differentiation/adhesion, and host-pathogen interactions.

Such analyses remain very challenging given the high complexity and microheterogeneity of glycosylation processes and machineries. Dr. Mechref is widely known for his toolbox of methods and techniques using mass spectrometry (MS) and tandem MS to study these sugars in the context of dangerous pathogens and cellular malfunctions. His team collaborates with bioinformatics experts to speed up and automate data interpretation and processing of biological samples.

“We live and die by the numbers in analytical chemistry,” Dr. Mechref said. “Because what we do touches lives, the bar has to be high.”

Using these tools, he has been able to identify specific molecular signatures and distinguish among different types of cancer between healthy and disease-free cells.

“The sugars on a protein expressed in lung cells differs from those on the same protein in a liver,” Dr. Mechref explained.

His ultimate goal is to use glycans as markers to help in disease diagnosis and track treatment efficacy. With continuing advances in technology, his team has been able to view subtle differences in isomers and linkages and determine their purposes in just the past two years.

His current research has expanded into using these molecular signatures to develop a scale for determining the severity of traumatic brain injury – previously judged based on cognitive tests – and thus aiding treatment.