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  4. Richard L. Proia, Ph.D.

Richard L. Proia, Ph.D.

Photo of Richard Proia
Scientific Focus Areas: Cell Biology, Genetics and Genomics, Immunology, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, Neuroscience

Professional Experience

  • Ph.D., University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, 1980
  • B.S., Bates College, 1976

Research Goal

The goal of our work is to understand how sphingolipids function and are regulated in order to devise treatments for diseases caused by disruption in their metabolism.

Current Research

Sphingolipids, the topic of our research, were named after the mysterious Sphinx of Greek mythology because of their mysterious properties. It is now well-known that a major function for sphingolipids is to serve as building blocks for cell membranes. Because of their distinctive structural characteristics, these molecules form plasma membrane "rafts" and act as binding sites for cells, viruses and toxins.

Sphingolipids also function directly as signaling molecules. Sphingosine-1-phosphate (S1P), a product of sphingolipid degradation, is a regulator of several biological processes. S1P can be produced by all cells and its concentration is relatively high in blood. It has five high-affinity G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) that are highly and widely expressed. S1P signaling through its GPCRs regulates basic functions in the vascular, nervous, and immune systems.

Sphingolipids are directly involved in human disease. This is most clearly seen in a family of inherited lysosomal storage disorders where blocks in the degradation of sphingolipids cause rare but very serious, in many cases, fatal disease. These lysosomal storage disorders include Tay-Sachs disease, Sandhoff disease, Gaucher disease, Fabry disease, Krabbe disease, Farber disease and GM1 gangliosidosis. Disturbances in sphingolipid metabolism and signaling have also been linked to cancer and diabetes.

In our lab, we aim to discover the functions of sphingolipids in normal biology and in disease using genetic approaches in mice and in patient cells. Ultimately we can use what we learn from this research to identify new therapies for disease.

Applying our Research

Sphingolipids have important biological functions, and their role in human disease is only beginning to be appreciated. A deeper understanding of the system holds potential for the development of novel therapies for human disease.

Need for Further Study

  • How the proper levels of sphingolipids are maintained in cells.
  • How altered levels of sphingolipids damage cells and cause disease.
  • How to treat patients with genetic disorders in sphingolipid metabolism.

Select Publications

Bioluminescence imaging of G protein-coupled receptor activation in living mice.
Kono M, Conlon EG, Lux SY, Yanagida K, Hla T, Proia RL.
Nat Commun (2017 Oct 27) 8:1163. Abstract/Full Text
HDL-bound sphingosine-1-phosphate restrains lymphopoiesis and neuroinflammation.
Blaho VA, Galvani S, Engelbrecht E, Liu C, Swendeman SL, Kono M, Proia RL, Steinman L, Han MH, Hla T.
Nature (2015 Jul 16) 523:342-6. Abstract/Full Text
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Research in Plain Language

Our lab studies sphingolipids, lipid molecules that form cell membranes and transmit signals to cells. Sphingolipids control many basic functions within cells. They also provide signals to the body for many of its systems to function normally. When their levels are disrupted by gene mutations, serious, sometimes fatal diseases result. These sphingolipid diseases include Tay-Sachs disease, Sandhoff disease, Gaucher disease, Fabry disease, Krabbe disease, Farber disease and GM1 gangliosidosis. Our work is aimed at understanding how sphingolipids function normally and during disease in order to devise treatments for the sphingolipid diseases.

Research Images