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Pioneers of Discovery: Investigator driven to divine cellular ecosystem’s rulebook

Oct. 31, 2013, 10:29 AM

Ken Lau, Ph.D., a new assistant professor in Cell and Developmental Biology, is out to determine the rules that lead to cells converting from one type to another, for example, when a healthy cell becomes a cancer cell.

“I am trying to follow the molecular logic behind these complex alterations. What are the rules?” asked Lau, who arrived at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in March after completing a joint postdoctoral fellowship in Boston.

Ken Lau, Ph.D., is seeking the molecular logic behind the rules that lead to cells converting from one type to another. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Lau, who trained in mouse genetics under Kevin Haigis, Ph.D., at Massachusetts General Hospital, and in molecular cell bioengineering under Douglas Lauffenburger, Ph.D., at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, views disease as the perturbation of an “ecosystem.”

“Because components within this ecosystem are so interconnected, any perturbation, which can range from an environmental carcinogen to a specific targeted therapy, results in a shift not only of a specific signaling pathway, but a shift of the whole system to an alternate state,” Lau said.

By applying engineering principles, Lau said he hopes to develop mathematical models that allow him to understand the ecosystem better, to predict its behavior, and to learn how to manipulate it in ways that the cells within it move towards health, rather than towards disease.

One day it may be possible, he added, to turn cancer cells back into healthy cells.

Born in Hong Kong and raised in Canada, Lau received both his bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. in Proteomics and Bioinformatics at the University of Toronto.

He is married to Jamie, an optometrist, and the couple has one child, Selene, 15 months old.

Because of his unique background and already extensive list of publications, Lau was invited to join the Epithelial Biology Center (EBC) and the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology. But he said he also chose Vanderbilt because of its “highly cross-disciplinary” and collaborative environment.

Colleagues include EBC Director Robert Coffey, M.D., Ingram Professor of Cancer Research; Erin Rericha, Ph.D., assistant professor of Physics and an expert on cell migration; and David Schwartz, M.D., associate professor of Medicine and director of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center.

“A second and very important aspect (to Vanderbilt’s attractiveness) is the amount of mentorship,” Lau said. “More senior faculty are willing to offer young faculty members (mentorship) to ensure their success.

“Last and most importantly, Vanderbilt is a premier academic institution,” he concluded. Here “I can really do the type of research I want to do, which I hope will have a large impact on human health and the understanding of fundamental biological processes.”

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