the trails of cells: NIH awards $38 million for research
By Fariss Samarrai
move. Their movement helps embryos develop, fashioning organs
and tissues. White blood cells chase bacteria and viruses, preventing
people from getting sick. Cancer cells crawl, using the bloodstream
to spread disease.
movement is an essential process that underlies health and disease.
Yet despite many years of intensive study, a good understanding
of the mechanics of this important phenomenon has remained out
of biologists grasp.
an effort to glue together large groups of scientists
across several disciplines from many universities, the National
Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), a component of
the National Institutes of Health,
has awarded a $38 million five-year grant to a U.Va.-led consortium
of cell researchers. This is the largest NIH grant in the Medical
Schools history, and among the biggest awards NIGMS has
ever given. Their mission is to investigate cell migration, the
process by which cells move from one location to another, such
as during wound healing and the spread of cancer. The work will
provide essential information that may eventually lead to new
therapies for a wide variety of diseases, from cancer to arthritis.
is providing extraordinary support for highly innovative research
in a very exciting and promising area of cell
biology, said Alan F. Rick Horwitz, U.Va.
professor of cell biology, who is leading the newly organized,
multi-institutional Cell Migration Consortium. Horwitz and J.
Thomas Parsons, chair of the U.Va. department of microbiology,
have assembled a multi-disciplinary team of 30 researchers from
10 institutions, including Harvard University, the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, the Scripps Research Institute and Johns
migrate using an extension-movement-retraction approach much
like the forward motion of a snail. It is a complex molecular
process, but the cell is, in effect, laying out feelers, gripping
solid ground, pulling forward and releasing its grip from
pulled together the very best people in their respective fields
to collaborate on a big-picture, interdisciplinary basic science
project that has the potential to change our understanding of
how cells work, Parsons said. This collaborative initiative
is designed to break down the institutional barriers that so often
inhibit the flow of new scientific information.
consortium is made up of biologists, chemists, biophysicists,
optical physicists, mathematical modelers, computer scientists
and engineers who will tackle problems from several points of
view. U.Va. members of the consortium, besides Horwitz and Parsons,
include Donald Hunt, University Professor of Chemistry and Pathology,
William Pearson, professor of biochemistry, and Jay Fox, professor
is funding the project at about $7.6 million per year, starting
with $8 million the first year. The grant will be administered
at U.Va. and the funds will be distributed to consortium researchers.
grant offers a fantastic opportunity for the University to further
enhance our research efforts in areas where we already have great
strengths and leadership capabilities, said Gene Block,
U.Va. vice president and provost. It also challenges us
to develop a new model for the creation of large-scale, multi-university
research communities across many disciplines.
idea for the Cell Migration Consortium began about five years
ago when Horwitz and Parsons were attending a scientific conference
in Colorado. At the time Horwitz was a professor at the University
were talking about the complexity of cell migration research and
came to realize that the work couldnt get done unless there
was a large group of interdisciplinary researchers working together
on the problems from several perspectives, Parsons said.
We got the idea to pull people together for this, and we
proposed the idea to NIH. It was a long process, and now, with
this level of funding, we believe we can accomplish our research
is one of the most significant grants the Medical School has ever
received, said Robert M. Carey, dean of the School
of Medicine. The faculty group weve assembled
in cell motility and adhesion is among the best in the world.
The glue grant will allow us to work together sharing our
findings quickly and efficiently, keeping together the big picture
view in this extremely important area of cell biology, Horwitz
migration is one of the least understood areas of cell biology,
according to Parsons, who said scientists still dont understand
how cells move from one area in the body to another, such as in
cancer metastasis. Our interest is in understanding the
mechanisms that direct and regulate cell movement. By increasing
our knowledge in this area, researchers may eventually find ways
to encourage cell migration for wound healing, or for stopping
the migration of cancer.
the mechanism of how cell migration occurs is critical to our
understanding of diseases like cancer, arthritis and osteoporosis,
as well as wound repair, embryonic development and tissue engineering,
said Horwitz. For example, most people who have cancer dont
die from primary tumors but from tumor spread thats
a migration problem. And a significant number of congenital brain
defects are migration problems.
state-of-the-art Web and interactive video technologies, consortium
researchers will share and discuss data as its gathered.
be able to share real-time data and make immediate analyses,
The consortium Web site will be accessible to scientists everywhere,
making possible the timely sharing of findings, ideas and information.
Members of the consortium, along with other researchers in the
field, will meet annually to share information and evaluate focus
areas, subgroups also will meet regularly, and all members will
participate in monthly videoconferencing.
long-term goal of the consortium is to produce an interactive
computer model of a migrating cell.
would have predictive value for researchers whose goal is to regulate
migration as a part of a therapeutic strategy, Horwitz said.
We want to be able to visualize the dynamics of cells walking.
This may lead to the development of biomaterials that could facilitate
the healing of wounds.
plan to make the work of the consortium as dynamic as the cell
itself, he added. We will be constantly evaluating
our work, looking for new directions, following leads, much the
way a cell seeks and receives direction when it moves.
points out that therapeutics may be a long way off and that the
consortiums focus is strictly on understanding the immensely
complicated processes of cell migration.
consortium will be the research hub for the eventual therapeutic
spokes, he said.