Filamins, Formins, and the Original Cell Phone

by Gabrielle DeMarco on March 22, 2009

When President Obama lifted the regulations on embryonic stem cell research, the collective research community did the scientist’s equivalent of stretching their hamstrings. The jury is still out on when and if the potential of these undifferentiated cells can be harnessed with enough control to develop safe medical therapies. But, as President Obama put it during the signing ceremony:


“That potential will not reveal itself on its own. Medical miracles do not happen simply by accident. They result from painstaking and costly research – from years of lonely trial and error, much of which never bears fruit – and from a government willing to support that work.”


And, not surprisingly, some of that “lonely trial and error” will be occurring right here at Rensselaer, where a growing foundation in stem cell research was given a substantial boost from a very supportive state government. On the same day as the Obama announcement, New York state awarded $1.08 million grants to both the Linhardt and Ferland laboratories to study stem cells through its stem cell research initiative.


A full news release on the grants can be found here.


Professor Russell Ferland will continue a partnership with Volney Sheen at Harvard Medical School to understand how two classes of genes called filamins and formins alter the growth of stem cells. Without properly functioning versions of these genes, brain and bone stem cell growth is dangerously mutated. The team will study how mouse stem cells change when these genes are removed. The research could also provide clues as it how stem cells can be controlled in patients suffering from mutations to the genes.


Professor Robert Linhardt will team up with Professor and Director of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies Jonathan Dordick and researchers from the University of Georgia to study the carbohydrates that surround human embryonic stem cells. Known as the glyco niche, the molecules within this allow the stem cell to “communicate” with other cells – the true Cellular phones (cue laugh reel). In the human body, a miscommunication with stem cells could result in disastrous consequences including possibly diseases like Parkinson’s and cancer. Linhardt’s lab is one of a small percentage of labs in the world that has the technology sophisticated enough to analyze the glyco niche. The team will also use Professor Dordick’s microarray technique. They will then attempt to control their growth by introducing different glycans to each colony.


This is just a sampling of the wide-range of stem cell research already occurring at Rensselaer. For more on stem cell research at Rensselaer, check out this article from a recent issue of Rensselaer magazine.