Tufts receives $10 million grant to study complex cell formation

Tufts has been awarded a $10 million grant to create one of the two Allen Discovery Centers in the nation for the study and eventual manipulation of the morphogenetic code. The grant, which will officially begin tomorrow, was given by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen and his recently created foundation Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group for interdisciplinary bioscience research.

The new center, which will be led by biology professor Michael Levin, will be based primarily at the Science and Engineering Complex (SEC), according to Levin. Research at the center will examine the morphogenetic code, which determines how cells form into complex tissues and organs, he explained.

“The question that we are investigating here is, where is that code written, in what form, and how can we learn how to read and write that code to alter shape?’” he said.

According to a Mar. 23 article in Forbes Magazine, the other Allen Discovery Center will be at Stanford University and will study the interaction between bacteria and the immune system.

In a press release from the Frontiers Group, University President Anthony Monaco explained that the Tufts Discovery Center has the potential to make significant discoveries in the realms of human and environmental health.

“We expect this Center to drive a fundamental change in how we investigate, teach and learn the quantitative biological sciences, and how we extend that knowledge,” Monaco stated. “If we can unravel the mystery of how organisms develop and control their shapes, we may see significant applications to other biological phenomena, including disorders such as cancer and diabetes, and even further to large-scale, complex systems involving high-level controls above the cellular level.”

Levin, who is also the director of the Tufts Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology. Levin said that most of his current team will be involved with the project. Other staff, including an engineer and a facility coordinator, will work with principal investigators at several other universities, he said.

Chair of the biology department Sergei Mirkin said that this is the first time that Tufts has worked with the Frontiers Group. According to Levin, the grant is for $10 million over four years with a possibility to extend a further four years. Mirkin said that this funding significantly exceeds most research grants.

Broadly speaking, the research will look at how a blastula, a group of embryonic cells, develops into the entire human body, according to Mirkin. He explained that conventional wisdom is that cells develop and decide their fate through chemical signals, but Levin is investigating how cells actually communicate using electrical signaling.

“Michael Levin proposed quite a while ago that actually, another huge factor, and maybe the major factor, in determining the cell’s fate during embryonic development is these changes of bioelectricity,” Mirkin said. “That is an unbeaten path.”

For that reason, Levin explained, the fundamental goal of the Discovery Center will be to study how that electrical code is written, how it can be read, and how it can be rewritten.

“Most people who work on this topic are pursuing it from the biochemical angle, looking at how chemical signals that are produced by cells give rise to a large-scale patterning,” Levin said. “But our specific focus is on electrical communication among cells, so we look at how it is that cells represent patterns via electrical signals that they exchange with each other.”

Levin said that his lab will focus broadly on reading and writing the morphogenetic code for the first four years, and will focus on specific applications if the grant is extended by an additional four years. In particular, the researchers will look specifically at eye development, limb development and connections between electrical signalling and chemical cascades.

“We’re looking to develop new technologies to read and re-write patterning information in living tissues,” Levin told the Daily later in an email.

Mirkin explained that the research is particularly important because changes in membrane voltage potential may change how genes are expressed in cells.  He said that two particular applications include tissue regeneration and cancer.

“The issue there is: what is the membrane voltage potential of cancer cells as compared to non-tumorous healthy cells?” Mirkin said. “And if you change it, can you convert a tumor cell into a normal cell?”

Levin said that the grant-making process began when the Allen Frontiers Group invited him to speak, and he was later invited to apply for a grant.

“When I gave my opinion about the most interesting new frontier, the dark matter of biology, I actually had no idea that there was a grant to be had out of this,” Levin said.

Mirkin added that the Tufts administration has offered important logistical support for the Discovery Center. However, he concluded that the grant ultimately owes to Levin’s unique approach to the question of morphogenesis.

“There are very few labs, of which Michael Levin’s lab is a leader, which study how changes in the electric potential change the development,” Mirkin said. “In this regard, it’s still an unorthodox point of view. It’s a prominent point of view, but it’s not by any means a dominant point of view in the field.”

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