Scientists describe structures of protein molecules that enable two-way signaling between cells

Two neuroscientists from UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas collaborated with cancer investigators in New York and Australia to determine the structures of protein molecules that bind together to initiate two-way signaling between human cells.

The study, published in todays issue of Nature, was built upon an earlier groundbreaking discovery by Dr. Mark Henkemeyer, assistant professor in UT Southwesterns Center for Developmental Biology, and his associate Chad Cowan, a doctoral candidate in the UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences who won the schools top student award for research last year.

They described the molecular details of how neurons sense their environment as they project their fibers to distant locations in the body. This finding was reported in a September issue of Nature.

Now, a team from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, in collaboration with Henkemeyer, has derived three-dimensional picture of the molecules that mediate this novel cell-to-cell communication system. The molecules are called Eph and Ephrin proteins.

The genome DNA sequencing project tells us what the amino acid sequence of the proteins are, but it doesnt give us the structure or shape that the proteins take after they have folded up as theyre activated to do their jobs, Henkemeyer said. Now we can visualize at atomic-level resolution how these important molecules interact to initiate bidirectional signaling between cells.

The cancer investigators are interested in Ephs and Ephrins because these same proteins also play similar communication roles in many other moving, remodeling cells, including vascular endothelial cells and, potentially, migrating metastatic cancer cells. These bidirectional messages or signals appear to help control how cells move and interact as the nervous system and other organs develop in the embryo or perhaps as cancer cells move throughout the body.

To describe t

Contact: Worth Wren Jr.
UT Southwestern Medical Center

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