Right now, within your body, there’s a good chance that free radicals are sending signals that are helping you remember where you left your keys, controlling your blood flow and killing unwanted bacteria.

Those, obviously, are good things.

However, depending on the state of your health, diet and environment, the same free radicals can cause side-effects and kill healthy cells.

Yes, free radicals are both good and bad for you. Why does this occur? How do free radicals change how the cells in the body respond? Those are just two questions Victor Darley-Usmar, Ph.D., studies every day.

“The same things that cause butter to go rancid can happen in your arteries,” explains Darley-Usmar. “These oxidation reactions can have a beneficial effect because they kill pathogens like bacteria and parasites and are signals to cells, but that same process can actually damage the normal tissues and contribute to inflammation when out of control.”

The UAB Center for Free Radical Biology is one of the world’s leading centers in an emerging scientific field that UAB first began pursuing in 1996 when the center was started by Bruce Freeman. Freeman recently left to become chair of pharmacology at the University of Pittsburgh, and Darley-Usmar was appointed director of the center Oct. 1.

The center comprises 30-plus UAB faculty members, each with an interest in free radical biology and its mechanisms. Faculty, students and post-docs from departments such as medicine, molecular and cellular pathology, environmental health services, chemistry, biology, nutrition, anesthesiology and other areas are involved in the center.

“The center brings together people with strong expertise in biochemistry, cell biology, physiology and clinical medicine,” Darley-Usmar says. “We all have an interest in trying to apply the basic mechanisms of free radical biology to our understanding of human disease in an effort to design new therapies.”

And Darley-Usmar is the right person to lead the group, says Anupam Agarwal, M.D., professor of nephrology. Agarwal counts Darley-Usmar’s recent selection as president-elect of the Society for Free Radical Biology and Medicine (SFRBM) and his background as an industry researcher at the Wellcome Research Laboratories in England among his qualifications for the post.

“He understands how industry works, and that is a very unique expertise. It’s a tribute to him to come into academia from industry and do so well,” says Agarwal, a recently elected member of the SFRBM council who will serve alongside several UAB faculty.

“Victor is extremely organized and has a vision in terms of how the next level should be for the center,” Agarwal says. “He also is the associate dean for the Office of Postdoctoral Education, and UAB is one of the top places to do a postdoc since he’s been in that position. That’s largely because of his efforts. To have good research, you have to have good post-doctoral fellows.”

There are more than 30 major grants at UAB that have a free-radical component, totaling approximately $12 million per year. Diabetes, heart disease, lung damage and obesity are among the chronic diseases being studied as they relate to free radicals.

“It is very difficult to measure what free radicals do in biology because many of them only last a few seconds,” Darley-Usmar says. “You have to have people with a strong understanding of chemistry and biochemistry because the way free radicals work depends upon their chemical reactivity. You need a team effort with people interacting.

“That’s the strength of the center.”