Cell study could slow mutation

By Lana Groves, Asst. News Editor

A new study suggests that if U researchers could determine the way cells migrate by analyzing a mutation in a gene, they could understand how cancerous cells spread and possibly stop tumor growth.

At the embryonic stage, certain signals in the body tell cells where to travel and spread. If one of the signals is disrupted by a gene mutation, the cells won’t spread, researchers said. Tatjana Piotrowski, a neurobiology and anatomy professor, said her research team has been studying the seven signals in a zebra fish that coordinate cells traveling from head to tail.

“In the embryonic stage, zebra fish are transparent,” Piotrowski said. “We can actually visualize the cells migrating.”

With the help of Andy Aman, a neurobiology doctoral student, Piotrowski followed cell migration in zebra fish embryos as sensory cells were deposited along the tail. The sensory cells help aquatic animals such as zebra fish sense water movement and other fish swimming nearby.

While following the cells, the researchers found that cells stop migrating when one of two signals are disrupted by mutated genes.

“The main mutation removes the brakes on the signal,” Aman said.

When this uncontrolled signal stops cells from spreading, it affects two other signaling pathways, causing even more chaos for cells.

“All of these pathways have been implicated in cancer by other researchers, but they didn’t know a connection exists between the three pathways,” Piotrowski said.

Aman said the study could be used as a model to understand and hopefully stop the spread of cancerous cells in humans by understanding how cells spread in zebra fish.

“Most cancers are benign,” Aman said. “They occur in tissues that can’t hurt you. The really dangerous thing about cancer is when it spreads to a vital place, like an organ.”

“Signaling molecules like the ones we work on probably tell the cancerous cells to migrate,” Aman said.

Piotrowski said the migration of groups of cells is also important for early embryonic development and for understanding how organs form.

“It provides us with a better understanding of these signaling pathways,” Piotrowski said.

The study was published in Tuesday’s issue of Developmental Cell.

Even though she has studied cell pathways for more than 12 years, Piotrowski said her research is far from over. She said the next step is to study how cells reproduce.

“These pathways might have multiple functions,” Piotrowski said. “The signaling pathways have been shown (to play a part) in controlling cell proliferation.”

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