Experts share research on cell communication

by Michelle Kibiger

College of Liberal Arts junior Abby Hestness has lupus, a disease that causes her immune system to attack healthy parts of her body. In her case, the lupus has damaged her kidneys beyond repair.
Because her grandmother also has the disease, Hestness’ doctors suspect that she inherited it. But like many genetic diseases, little is known about how the lupus gene is passed from generation to generation.
Although Hestness has been in remission for several years, her form of lupus is often life-threatening, and she could pass it on to her children.
Mark Hughes, a researcher with the National Institutes of Health, has developed a way for women to find out, before they even conceive a child, whether they are at risk to pass a disease on to their children. He will speak tonight as part of a two-day symposium at the Earle Brown Center on cell communication, hosted by the University’s Center for Developmental Biology.
Christopher Wylie, the biology center’s program director, said this year’s symposium is important because it deals with scientific issues that affect people in their everyday lives.
“We can all relate to it,” Wylie said. “If we are a member of that family with a terrible gene, we’ll want to eliminate it.”
Hughes, a native of St. Cloud, has developed a program that tests whether embryos conceived in a laboratory do or do not carry a genetically-passed disease. This way, doctors can avoid implanting abnormal embryos.
Experts on several other issues surrounding how the human body’s cells communicate with one another will discuss their findings at the event. Topics on the agenda include how chemical messengers work, natural cell death and how body systems develop in relation to the system’s cells.
Wylie said this symposium is different from most scientific conferences because the researchers are trying to educate those in attendance. He said that at most conferences, the doctors discuss issues they already understand.
Not only will doctors be attending this symposium, but undergraduates and graduate students from around the region also will attend. Wylie said the topics chosen for the sessions reflect cutting-edge trends of biological research.
For this annual event, now in its fifth year, the symposium committee promotes a particular theme and asks contemporary scientists who research those topics to speak. Wylie said the topics always have a direct application not only to the scientific world, but also to the general public.
“It’s hard to predict how and when a part of research will find an application in medicine,” Wylie said. “But they all do eventually.”
Research becomes exciting to the public, Wylie said, when real-life applications are discovered. He also said that many such applications are occurring at the University.
For example, Dr. Karen Hsiao received national acclaim last week for her work involving Alzheimer’s disease and mice. Hsiao created a mouse that possesses the gene for Alzheimer’s disease so doctors can study how it develops. Hsiao’s model is the first such tool available for the study of the disease.
“The University has a commitment and enthusiasm that really made me want to be here,” Wylie said.
Wylie’s research surrounds how cells figure out what they are supposed to become and where they go wrong. Such wrong turns are often the source of many of the genetic diseases that people live with.
Hestness said she has thought about the risk that she might pass on the lupus gene to her children someday. But because doctors have been able to control the effects of lupus in most patients, she said she is not worried.