July 11, 2003

Dey earns second MERIT Award

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S.K. Dey

Dey earns second MERIT Award

More than 30 years into his career — a point when most people would be contemplating retirement — S.K. Dey, Ph.D., Dorothy Overall Wells Professor of Pediatrics and director of the Division of Reproductive and Developmental Biology, suddenly finds himself in a unique position.

Dey has just been selected by the National Institute on Drug Abuse to receive a second coveted Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) award, this time for his research on the role of endocannabinoid signaling in embryo-uterine interactions during pregnancy. According to medical center records, Dey is the first Vanderbilt investigator to ever hold two such awards concurrently.

MERIT awards recognize investigators with a laudable track record of high caliber research, and who have provided up to 10 years of continuous, non-competitive support.

“This is really an unexpected honor,” said Dey, who is also professor of Pharmacology and professor of Cell and Developmental Biology. “The recognition belongs to the whole group. In science we always ride on the shoulders of others — I truly believe that.

“I’d like to give special recognition to B.C. Paria and Sanjoy K. Das, who have been associated with this project from its inception. I also sincerely appreciate the efforts of Haibin Wang and Takiko Daikoku, two postdoctoral fellows whose efforts have been instrumental in establishing my research program here at Vanderbilt.”

The broad theme of Dey’s research is to better understand how the embryo makes a connection with the mother in the uterus. Deciphering the molecular cross talk between the two during implantation holds the promise of leading to better fertility treatments, enhanced fetal health and improved contraceptive methods.

Results from Dey’s lab have advanced our understanding of uterine biology, and pre-implantation and implantation biology in mammals. Of particular note are the findings on how estrogen receptors regulate the expression of growth factors, cytokines, and COX-1 and –2; chemotaxis of immune cells; expression of prostaglandin receptors; and regulation of cell proliferation and differentiation.

During the past 10 years, the group has turned its attention to the role of cannabinoids in pregnancy. Dey’s research on endogenous cannabinoid (endocannabinoid) signaling during early pregnancy is the only program of its kind in the country, and he has become one of the international leaders in the field.

Cannabinoids are chemicals found naturally — or endogenously — in our bodies, and also, perhaps more familiarly, in marijuana. These molecules act as neurotransmitters in the brain, but they came to Dey’s attention by way of a study showing a possible estrogenic effect in a study of Vietnam veterans who were chronic marijuana smokers and who developed enlarged breasts.

Though that association was never confirmed, Dey did find that the mouse pre-implantation embryo has 25-fold more cannabinoid receptors than the brain, and that the endocannabinoid called anandamide — from the Sanskrit word meaning “bliss” — that activates the receptor is produced in the uterus. His lab showed that, in the mouse, signaling between anandamide and receptor must be optimally balanced to synchronize pre-implantation development of the embryo and preparation of the uterine lining.

Based on his results in mice, studies have been conducted by investigators in other countries that suggest a similarly important role for endocannabinoid signaling in human pregnancy. The studies showed that when anandamide levels were elevated during early pregnancy, the rate of miscarriage was significantly higher.

“There was anecdotal evidence previously,” said Dey. “But now there is hard scientific evidence that (human) pregnancy is affected by this signaling.”

Dey’s group will use the new funding to continue their work in the mouse model to further define how endocannabinoid signaling stimulates or inhibits embryonic growth. According to Dey, the strong interdisciplinary network of scientific collaborations he has established since moving his operation to Vanderbilt a year ago has enhanced these efforts.

“The scientific discussion has been rich,” he said. “And we’ve shared mice and reagents with many other researchers. In fact, there is sometimes more demand than can be fulfilled.”

Dey said his ability to juggle so many research projects and still keep all the balls in the air is highly dependent upon the support he receives from the administration and infrastructure at Vanderbilt, and especially from his family.

“This is a very challenging and demanding time in my life and career,” said Dey. “My wife Anjana, my son Maruti and my daughter-in-law Mahua have been very supportive all along in my professional career, accepting my long hours in the lab seven days a week. Without Anjana’s support on the home front, it would have been very difficult to fulfill any of my professional responsibilities and goals.”