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Pioneers of Discovery: Investigator explores how cells decide what’s on surface

Dec. 5, 2013, 9:04 AM

Jason MacGurn, Ph.D., is studying the protein composition of the surface of cells. (photo by John Russell)

Forget that maxim about not judging a book by its cover. In the world of cells, what’s on the “cover” matters — a lot.

“In some sense, what’s on the surface of a cell is the most important thing,” said Jason MacGurn, Ph.D., a new assistant professor of Cell and Developmental Biology. “The cell’s surface proteins determine how it interacts with its environment.”

MacGurn, who joined the Vanderbilt faculty in August, is studying how cells make decisions about the protein composition of the cell surface.

“Cells are constantly monitoring their environment and deciding that some surface proteins should be turned over, while other ones should be stable,” MacGurn said. “This is particularly important in disease states like cancer. The surface composition of a cancer cell is very different from that of a normal cell, in ways that we don’t yet fully appreciate.”

MacGurn aims to use new technologies — including proteomics, imaging and biochemistry tools — to characterize differences in cell surface composition between normal and cancer cells, and to understand how those differences arise.

During his postdoctoral fellowship with Scott Emr, Ph.D., at Cornell University, MacGurn identified a biochemical network that manages the protein composition at the cell surface in yeast. That network is conserved in human cells, and includes molecules that have been linked to cancer.

“Although there are clear links to human disease, for the most part, the biological functions of the network have not really been elucidated,” he said.

MacGurn believes that a full understanding of how a cell makes decisions about its surface composition will suggest ways to intervene. His team is working to develop new technologies for artificial remodeling of the cell surface, and will explore them as potential therapeutic tools.

In the case of a cancer cell, for example, it might be possible to alter negative characteristics like hyper-proliferation, invasion and drug resistance by manipulating the proteins on the cell surface, he said.

MacGurn has been on a steady trek to his new assistant professor position. Growing up in San Diego, he had an early interest in biology, which was cemented by undergraduate research experiences at the University of Chicago. He completed his Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, where he studied microbial pathogenesis, specifically how Mycobacterium tuberculosis parasitizes cells.

“The most formative experience for me was doing undergraduate research,” MacGurn said. “It set me on a path from which I have not deviated.”

He is excited to launch his independent career at Vanderbilt.

“There are a lot of labs here that complement my vision for what I would like to accomplish. I felt like Vanderbilt offered an ideal environment for me to build my research program, and I think that being here will facilitate new directions in my work,” he said.

MacGurn lives in Franklin with his wife, Elena, and their 7-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.

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