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Concordia’s Ann English wins Lifetime Achievement Award for her seminal work in bioinorganic chemistry

The Society of Porphyrins and Phthalocyanines recognizes the distinguished professor emerita’s research on heme proteins, which play many important biological roles
February 19, 2024
Diptych image with a smiling older woman with blonde hair and a patterned shirt on the left. On the right, a graphic recreation of the hemoglobin protein found in red blood cells
Left: Ann English, distinguished professor emerita. | Right: Simple recreation of the hemoglobin protein found in red blood cells. (Image by Hassaan Here, via unsplash.)

Ann English, distinguished professor emerita in Concordia’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, has won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Porphyrins and Phthalocyanines. The award recognizes her as an outstanding senior scientist in the fields of heme-protein chemistry and biochemistry.

Many proteins and enzymes bind heme, a porphyrin to which an iron atom is attached.

English won the 2024 Eraldo Antonini Award for her seminal research on heme proteins and enzymes, which play many important biological roles, including the transportation of oxygen throughout the body by hemoglobin. The award is named after prominent Italian biochemist Antonini, who made seminal contributions to the understanding of hemoglobin and myoglobin.

“I’m very honoured to have won an international award that’s named after this impressive Italian researcher,” she says.

“When I look at the people that have won before me, they are all leaders in the field. So it’s very rewarding and humbling to be among that list of awardees.”

English, also an Honorary Concordia University Research Chair in Bioinorganic Chemistry, began researching various types of heme proteins and enzymes when she started her career at the university.

In particular, she has looked at the role of heme enzymes in controlling levels of hydrogen peroxide, a toxin found in our bodies. English has also looked at alternative functions of hemoglobin in the body, especially its role in blood flow.

English has long been a driving force in bioinorganic chemistry research in Canada. She was the first to bring the research field to Concordia when she arrived in 1982 and has had an important impact on the university’s research sector.

English secured funding to purchase a number of mass spectrometers in the 1990s leading to the establishment of Concordia’s Centre for Biological Applications of Mass Spectrometry (CBAMS) in 2003, which she led until 2017. She also benefitted significantly from the research facilities in Concordia’s Centre for Research in Molecular Modeling (CERMM).

English explains that mass spectrometry revolutionized the way chemists and biologists do research, allowing them to examine proteins, how they are modified in cells and by drugs, and what other proteins they interact with. She additionally obtained funding for a specialized mass spectrometer to measure trace elements in biological samples, instrumentation that is also used to analyze chemical, industrial and environmental samples.

“I’m very happy that biological mass spectrometry evolved during my career so that I could use the technology and do a lot of very interesting research efficiently and effectively,” she shares.

English has also supervised and successfully graduated more than 55 graduate students and mentored 37 postdoctoral fellows and research associates.

Groundbreaking research

Combining the resources available in CBAMS and CERMM, English’s research has helped clarify some longstanding questions about hemoglobin’s reactions with another small gaseous molecule, nitric oxide (NO).

By dilating small blood vessels, NO plays a pivotal role in directing blood flow to where oxygen is needed. For example, when someone is running, NO helps facilitate increased blood flow and oxygen delivery to their leg muscles.

Her research explored how hemoglobin, a protein traditionally associated with oxygen transport, interacts with NO to regulate the dilation of blood vessels to meet the body’s specific oxygen demands.

English made paradigm-shifting discoveries about a heme peroxidase previously thought to only remove toxic hydrogen peroxide from yeast cells. This enzyme, far from being a simple detoxifier, plays a crucial role as a sensor, signalling to the cell nucleus to take defensive action when hydrogen peroxide levels build up.

She also discovered that this heme enzyme acts as a heme transporter that releases its heme in response to increased hydrogen peroxide exposure, turning on detoxification by catalase, a more specialized heme enzyme.

English’s findings challenge previous beliefs and underscore the complex, multitasking role of proteins in sophisticated cellular response mechanisms, marking a significant contribution to the understanding of cellular defense.

Find out about the services offered by
Concordia’s Centre for Biological Applications of Mass Spectrometry and Centre for Research in Molecular Modeling.



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