May 5, 2011

Epithelial Biology Center hosts inaugural symposium

Epithelial Biology Center hosts inaugural symposium

Cutting-edge science from across the country was on display last week during the inaugural Epithelial Biology Center symposium at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

In addition to several Vanderbilt researchers, speakers included Joan Brugge, Ph.D., chair of Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School, and James Nelson, Ph.D., professor of Biology at Stanford University.

Epithelial cells make up the protective lining of internal organs, but epithelial tissues are also the source of more than 90 percent of all cancers, said Susan Wente, Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Research, in introducing the symposium.

Center director Robert Coffey, M.D., and co-director James Goldenring, M.D., Ph.D., have spent years studying the spatial compartmentalization of proteins in these cells and the vesicles that transport them to specific parts of the cell membrane.

“It’s thought that the failure to deliver proteins to their correct destination will be at the root of many of these diseases,” said Wente, who also is professor of Cell & Developmental Biology and senior associate dean for Biomedical Sciences.

New technologies and approaches are making it possible to isolate and characterize these vesicles, and therefore to learn how transport problems may lead to disease.

This center directly reflects Vanderbilt’s commitment to invest in research “that has the potential to directly intersect with improvement in human health,” Wente said.

Coffey, the John B. Wallace Professor of Medicine and Ingram Professor of Cancer Research, described some of the new methods developed at Vanderbilt, including fluorescence-activated vesicle sorting.

Using this technique, the researchers recently identified a new mode of signaling involving transport in exosomes (extracellular nanovesicles) of ligands that bind to and activate the epidermal growth factor receptor. This finding may help explain how cancer spreads to distant sites.

In addition, “one of the major missions of the Epithelial Biology Center is to train the next generation of biomedical scientists,” Coffey said. “We want to create a cadre of investigators who are fearless in approaching any kind of scientific problem.”