The language of cellular communication
Our cells take cues from their environment for almost every aspect of functioning and growth. For example, they rely on growth factors supplied by the extracellular matrix for survival and cell division. This is also true for processes like differentiation— whereby a cell becomes more specialized in function—and cellular migration, as occurs in organ development.
“These processes are analogous to a cellular ‘language’ of sorts, with cells in constant bi-directional communication to facilitate normal growth and development,” says Dr. Mark van Eekelen, a post-doctoral researcher in Dr. Tony Pawson’s lab at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute.
Dr. van Eekelen moved from the Netherlands last year to begin studies with Dr. Pawson and his lab, a group renowned for their investigations into signal transduction—the way in which cells control their own and each other’s behaviour through chemical signals.
“I was intrigued by the complexities of signal transduction, and Dr. Pawson’s team at the Lunenfeld was one of the few labs worldwide with an incredibly high level of expertise in this area,” says Dr. van Eekelen.
Specifically, Dr. van Eekelen is studying a cellular signalling pathway called EPH–ephrin, which contributes to cellular “decisions” like division, migration, differentiation and survival.
EPH receptor tyrosine kinases and their cell-surface bound ligands, the Ephrins, are involved in a variety of cell-to-cell communications that affect processes such as cell patterning, guidance, migration and adhesion.
Dr. van Eekelen explains that many illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer arise from defects in cell signaling, including those of the EPH-ephrin pathway.
“Tumour cells typically ignore their environmental cues, or create their own signals to bypass normal signaling and keep growing and—in the case of malignant tumours—to migrate and form metastatic growths,” says Dr. van Eekelen. “Not surprisingly, the EPH-ephrin signaling system is altered in several tumour types, leading to either tumour development and growth, or the onset of malignancy.”
“We also aim to interfere with this pathway by generating specific EPH receptor-binding antibodies, which we will test for their efficiency to either activate or inhibit the altered EPH signaling pathway in tumour cells. This may lead to novel therapeutic strategies for cancer.”
“Mark moved to the Lunenfeld after completing very successful PhD studies with Jeroen den Hertog at another renowned institute, the Hubrecht,” notes Dr. Jim Woodgett, the Lunenfeld’s Director of Research. “His studies on EPH signalling builds on his expertise in developmental biology, and his work is a superb example of the benefits of understanding the role of fundamental biological processes in disease. His well deserved TD Fellowship recognizes his accomplishments and future promise.”
When asked about the differences in research climates in Canada versus his native Netherlands, Dr. Van Eekelen notes that “both the Netherlands and Canada have an excellent scientific community. Toronto distinguishes itself by having a very concentrated research base that promotes collaboration. Toronto’s weather is also quite an improvement compared to the Netherlands!”