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Two Drosophila brains. Brain A shows the normal adult brain of the fly. Brain B shows the mutation resulting from "minibrain." (Image by: Liu Yang)
September 8, 2016

UMass Boston Professor Studies Cell Signaling, with Implications for Cancer & Down Syndrome


  • Boston

A UMass Boston professor has earned a $1.6 million grant to fund research that could lead to improved gene therapies for people with Down syndrome, and improved treatment for cancer patients.

Alexey Veraksa, an associate professor of biology, has been awarded the five-year grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health. Veraksa’s research focuses on the signaling pathways that determine how cells develop and multiply. The grant is in collaboration with Stanislav Shvartsman of Princeton University.

“When cells develop, they have to communicate with each other,” Veraksa said. “Cells have to make sure they divide the appropriate number of times, differentiate, and form organs of the correct size. This process is coordinated by cells sending signals to each other.”

The cells signal their neighbors using specialized molecules. Receptors on a cell’s surface collect and interpret those signaling molecules, which in turn change the cell’s behavior. 

Veraksa specifically studies a receptor called tyrosine kinase. When this receptor encounters the right molecules, it encourages the cell to grow and divide faster. But if the pathway is mutated, it can lead to cancerous growth. Veraksa’s lab also looks at how cell signaling controls tissue patterning, or the way that cells come together to form organs in the right shape. Veraksa uses fruit flies to model how cell signaling might work in humans.

Veraksa is currently investigating a particular genetic mutation called “minibrain” that results in flies having underdeveloped nervous systems and smaller brains. The same molecules involved in “minibrain” have been linked with Down syndrome in humans. Another molecule, called Capicua, has been linked with brain cancer in humans. Learning more about signaling pathways could eventually help scientists to develop gene therapies to help patients at the cellular level.

Money from the grant will also support the research of undergraduate and graduate students at UMass Boston. Students in the lab learn techniques and experimental approaches that are essential to a career in biology. Veraksa also emphasizes strong science writing skills, and encourages them to write drafts of scientific papers and contribute to writing grant proposals.

Veraksa’s work will be published in an upcoming edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.