Ilya Levental, PhD

  • Recruited to: The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
  • Recruited from: Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics
  • Award: First-Time, Tenure-Track Faculty Member

Dr. Ilya Levental began his academic career as an engineer, earning a BS in Chemical Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology on a HOPE Scholarship. Dr. Levental received the Undergraduate Research Scholarship at the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and spent two years in Dr. Gang Bao’s laboratory developing one of the first “optical tweezers” systems for use in cell biological applications – these systems use intense lasers as tractor beams to manipulate microscopic objects and thereby both measure and impart forces on cells and individual molecules.  These early independent research experiences taught him that science was more than a collection of facts; it was a system of hypotheses and systematic experimentation that eventually leads to undeniable insights into the natural world. 

In particular, the intersection of technology, physics, and cell biology was to become a passion which Dr. Levental pursued through a PhD in Bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania.  In his PhD work in the laboratory of Dr. Paul Janmey, Dr. Levental developed an interest in the molecular mechanisms and biological role of membrane structure.  The major breakthrough was the observation that it was possible to study the vital signaling lipid phosphatidyl inositol (4,5) bisphosphate (PIP2) in isolation using classical techniques from lipid physical chemistry, namely Langmuir monolayers.  Dr. Levental discovered an interplay of intermolecular hydrogen bonding and electrostatic repulsion that governs the lateral organization of PIP2.  A significant insight was that this organization could be regulated by ionic calcium, which is a central mediator of a variety of cellular responses, suggesting a fundamental functional role for lipid organization and the modulation thereof.

Towards the end of his thesis work, Dr. Levental met and began a fruitful collaboration with Dr. Tobias Baumgart, who had recently developed a novel and exciting tool to study functional phase separation in biological membranes – or lipid rafts.  Through Dr. Baumgart’s discovery of phase separation in isolated plasma membranes, the concept of lipid rafts had quickly evolved from a controversial hypothesis of static, stable, isolated domains to an accepted mechanism for the functional organization of eukaryotic membranes.  The potential of this conceptual and methodological breakthrough was immediately clear to Dr. Levental and he conceived a project to study the uncharacterized structural factors determining protein partitioning between coexisting plasma membrane domains.  Dr. Levental received the prestigious Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship designed to recruit leading scientist to Germany for postdoctoral research and joined the laboratory of Dr. Kai Simons, the discoverer and leading researcher in the field of membrane rafts, at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden in 2008.  There, he developed the first quantitative assay for raft association and characterized structural determinants for raft targeting by immune system and oncogenic proteins.

In 2012, Dr. Levental and his wife Dr. Kandice Levental (a native Texan and long-time collaborator) started up their lab in the Department of Integrative Biology and Pharmacology at the University of Texas – Houston Medical School.  Their lab is combining classical cell biology, biophysics, synthetic biology and computational modeling to characterize the role of membrane structure in the regulation of cell function, specifically in the context of oncogene addiction in breast cancer cell signaling. The ultimate goal of this research is to develop drugs that modulate microdomain association and post-translation lipidation of proteins involved in proliferative and anti-apoptotic signaling for therapeutic intervention in breast carcinomas.  The supportive environment of the IBP and generous funding support of CPRIT combine to make UT-Houston the perfect environment for fundamental breakthroughs and cutting edge therapies, and Dr. Levental is excited to be a part of this progress.