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Under the Microscope—USciences Research Leads to Understanding Cells

By Jen A. Miller


chrisCHRIS JANETOPOULOS, PhD, associate professor of biological sciences, splits his research between two distinct areas that are leading to important new understandings in how cells work.

The first is in understanding cell division and cell migration, two processes that have been linked to the metastasis of many types of cancers. Through a recent National Institutes of Health grant, the Janetopoulos lab has focused its research on the mechanisms cells use to maintain polarity during those two processes.

“Cellular polarity results in a distinct front and back and is critical for cell motility,” said Dr. Janetopoulos. His lab has identified two lipids in a cell’s plasma membrane that regulate division and migration. Regulation of those two lipids could be a possible treatment in future cancer therapies, and in fact, Dr. Janetopoulos and University of the Sciences have recently filed a provisional patent protecting this work and its potential role as a therapeutic target and diagnostic tool.

“While several of the proteins we study are mutated in tumors, we are proposing a new model for how they function to make cancer cells more invasive and why a lot of these mutations lead to bad cancer prognoses,” he said.

Janetopoulos recently published a study using a new type of microscope in the journal Science, coauthored with the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Dr. Eric Betzig. This new lattice light sheet microscope developed by the Betzig lab at the Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia, allows researchers to image live cells and small organisms at high  speed and resolution, while also not damaging the specimen. Dr. Janetopoulos says there is nothing else out there that allows scientists to obtain 3D images with this type of spatial and temporal resolution. Recent unpublished work on this microscope supports his new model on the role of the two identified lipids in cancer metastasis.

Dr. Janetopoulos’ second area of interest is in advancing imaging processes. He recently founded the company In Vivo Imaging Solutions, which creates devices that allow researchers to track and immobilize things as small as an individual bacterium to as large as multicellular embryos so their pictures can be taken without destroying the organisms.

“You can look at them and you can watch them for a long time without harming them,” said Dr. Janetopoulos. This is something he learned to value as a graduate student in the Aufderheide lab at Texas A&M, where he discovered a novel organelle, the conjusome, in a cell using a similar device. He believes anyone imaging motile organisms or microbes should have one of these devices.

The Janetopoulos lab is also developing novel fluorescent and microfluidic techniques for 3D imaging that allow researchers to image live cells without destroying them and also to image within live animals. “We recently submitted a patent application for a new type of window that allows you to see into a living animal and interact with it in real time,” he said. The company hopes to sell these devices in the not-too-distant future to researchers doing a variety of studies, including in cancer and neuroscience. Dr. Janetopoulos still has a strong collaboration with the Hofmeister group at the University of Tennessee Space Institute, which is pursuing some of these technologies.

Dr. Janetopoulos came to USciences in August from Vanderbilt University. “I wanted to be part of an institution with a strong undergraduate research program,” he said, because it’s important to him that undergraduates as well as graduate and postdoctoral students are gaining hands-on experience while in school.


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