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Johnson Cancer Research Center

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Dr. Michael Herman

Division of Biology
Departmental Website

“During early development of multicellular organisms, most cells have not yet “decided” what type of cell (for example a nerve or skin cell) they will become and they undergo rapid cell divisions. Similarly, cancerous cells also divide rapidly and are often confused as to what type of cell they are. Thus, there are parallels between cell development and cancer. In fact, it turns out that many genes that are involved in controlling early development have been found to be functioning inappropriately in many cancers. In this way, discoveries made studying early development often have implications for basic cancer research.

The Herman lab studies how cell polarity is controlled during development. Orientation to the body axis of an animal gives each cell a polarity. We use the free-living soil nematode Caenorhabditis elegans for our studies because it has a small number of cells, all of which can be seen in the light microscope, and is amenable to genetic analysis. We have found that some cells control the polarity of other cells by sending a chemical signal. This signal is a Wnt protein, which is a member of a family of proteins that function as cell signals in all animals, including humans! In some cases, Wnt signals cause cells to take on a particular fate, whether polarity or division! In fact, the first member of the Wnt family was isolated as an oncogene, and when activated caused breast cancer in mice. Defective Wnt signalling can lead to the development of several forms of cancer, particularly colon cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma, desmoid tumors, Wilms tumor, gastric cancer, endometrial cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer and uterine cancer. So, by studying the control of cell polarity in a nematode, we can learn how this important pathway functions in both development and cancer.”