Henry M. Colecraft (PhD ’96) always held a deep appreciation for the hands-off style of his mentor, Shey-Shing Sheu, PhD, while at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
Colecraft fondly remembers being allowed to explore his own ideas in the lab—for better or worse.
“You make a lot of mistakes that way, but it does instill in you a sense of confidence, once you come out on the other side, that you can come up with a project that makes sense and that people would be interested in,” he says. “You learn to be able to think independently.”
In Sheu’s lab, Colecraft developed an approach to figure out why and how, depending upon the conditions set on it, a receptor in a heart cell could signal the heart to beat either faster or slower.
In Colecraft’s own lab today, as the John C. Dalton Professor of Physiology & Cellular Biophysics at Columbia University Medical Center, he studies ion channels important for the behavior of every cell—particularly channels with mutations that can cause cystic fibrosis, cardiac arrhythmias, and neurological problems such as epilepsy.
“I’m interested in how they function, how mutations in them cause disease, and how we can develop methods to try to alleviate that,” he says.
Colecraft, who has received multiple provisional patents for his work, was approached about three years ago by a physician at Columbia, who had a patient born with multiple disabilities.
Since identifying a mutation in one of the patient’s ion channels associated with the nervous system and brain, Colecraft has been contacted by parents whose children have similar disabilities and are looking for therapies to alleviate symptoms.
“There are no treatments currently for them, and the issue becomes progressive,” he says, “so there are human dimensions to some of what we’re doing that help motivate us to do this work.”