Emory Report

January 26, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 18

New Cell Biology chair adds
faculty, model systems

As one of the world's leading researchers in the field, Barry Shur, chair of the Department of Cell Biology, is credited with opening up an entirely new area of research with his work in the biology of adhesion and cell surface interactions. In research begun 20 years ago, Shur and his colleagues identified the receptor on the sperm surface called galactosyl transferase that allows sperm to bind to the egg coat and fertilize an egg. Shur believes this knowlege may lead to further understanding of infertility and to more specific, less toxic contraceptives.

He discovered that galactosyl transferase is also used by metastatic cancer cells when they migrate from a primary tumor and bind to distant cells. He has shown that the more aggressive a metastatic cancer cell is, the more of the receptor it expresses. "Our hope is that by blocking this receptor we might block metastasis," he said. "In the laboratory, we can make poorly aggressive tumors highly aggressive by molecularly expressing more of the receptor, and we can make highly malignant cells less malignant by inhibiting the expression of that protein."

Add frog eggs, flies and slime mold
When Shur came to Emory, he had a mandate to expand and rejuvenate cell biology by hiring top-notch faculty members. After narrowing the field to 10 superstars, he limited his offers to three highly competitive candidates. All three accepted, and he was well on his way to expanding his new department exactly according to plan-in molecular cell and developmental biology.

Shur wants the department to grow in all aspects of cell and developmental biology, and is bringing in diverse model systems, including yeast, worms (nematodes), fruit flies (drosophila), South African clawed frogs (xenopus), and the hottest new model system in biology, the zebrafish, a transparent animal with a clear view of every cell in its embryo during development.

Shur insists these models are not just esoteric, but he sometimes has a hard time convincing others. "When they ask what do these systems have to offer for our understanding of human disease, I point out genes that control the cell cycle, cancer and embryonic development, to name only a very few, were all identified using systems such as xenopus, yeast and fruit flies," said Shur. "The burden is on us, the scientists, to better explain how these model systems [mimic] the human condition."

Two of his three new recruits, Krishna Bhat and Kevin Moses, are fruit fly experts-the same system used by three recent Nobel laureates. Formerly at Princeton, Bhat has identified a whole new class of genes in the fruit fly that determine how the stem cells of the central nervous system are programmed to become cells with a variety of functions. Moses, a nationally recognized senior faculty investigator from the University of Southern California, uses drosophila to study how molecules in the eye signal instructions to each other.

The third recruit, Maureen Powers from the University of California at San Diego, investigates the structure and function of the nuclear pore-the barrier between the nucleus and cytoplasm that is the only means of transfer and communication between these two cell areas. Her model is the South African clawed frog egg, described by Shur as "a K-Mart for biochemists, chock full of building blocks for the early embryo."

Established research in the department includes 12 investigators whose work covers vision, olfaction, neuronal stem cells, the pathology of Alzheimers disease, neuromuscular control, calcium signaling, central nervous system injury and repair, molecular motors (molecules that transport structures from one part of the cell to the other), the cytoskeleton (the latticework of the cell) and protein processing.

A cell by any other name
Joining a national trend, Emory's department recently changed its name from Anatomy and Cell Biology to Cell Biology, a shift reflecting the fact that anatomy no longer exists as a research discipline. "We already know how the body is put together at the gross, or organ, level," said Shur. "Now we need to know how it is put together at the microscopic and molecular level. Cell biology is a broad topic that covers all the science we deal with and encompasses our entire teaching mission as well."

The department teaches courses in human anatomy, cell biology, developmental biology and neurobiology to medical students, in addition to its efforts in allied health and the graduate school. "To say that we take our teaching commitment seriously is an understatement," Shur said. "We teach about 50 percent of the first-year medical school curriculum." He is proud of the fact that faculty member Kyle Peterson, who put much of the department's cell biology and gross anatomy visual aids into multimedia format, recently received Emory's innovative teaching award.

Shur has known he would be a research scientist since the fourth grade. "I was one of those weirdos in school who had a laboratory in their basement," he admitted. "I was one of the lucky ones, too, who had an obsession about what they wanted to do all through school." As a graduate student at Johns Hopkins, where he received his PhD in 1976, Shur found studying the development of the embryo "an amazing thing" and hasn't left the topic since. He completed a Helen Hay Whitney Fellowship at New York's Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, then joined the relatively new University of Connecticut Medical School faculty before going on to Texas' M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in 1984, where he rose to chair the biochemistry and molecular biology department.

-Holly Korschun

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