Twitter for Cells

Researchers from Western Australia, Japan and Germany have collaborated to create the first map of cell-to-cell communication between the hundreds of cell types which make up our bodies. 

Alistair Forrest

The work published in Nature Communications has revealed for the first time that there are literally hundreds of messages passed between any two cell types. Imagine twitter for cells; hundreds of cell types telling each other what is happening via hundreds of different messages (status updates).

The lead author who conceived the work is Professor Alistair Forrest, Laboratory Head of Systems Biology and Genomics at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research in Perth.

He says that rather than traditional biology which focuses on one or two genes at a time, the ethos behind systems biology is to study all elements (typically genes or proteins) simultaneously to see how they work together in a system (or network).

“Humans have evolved into complex multicellular organisms made of hundreds of different specialised cell types. Division of labour between these specialised cell types allows us to have more complex functions than simple single cell organisms like yeast and bacteria. Cell specialization allows us to see, hear, pump blood, walk etc,” Professor Forrest says.

“To make all of this work the human body has evolved protein messages that are used to communicate between these different cell types to coordinate their activity. What we have revealed in this new research is that they have many-many ways of talking to each other”.

Professor Forrest says the work has important implications for medicine.

“The proteins involved are actually well known to the general public. Insulin, human growth factor and leptin and their receptors are important in diabetes, height and obesity. This type of signalling is also very important in our immune response to infectious diseases. It is also important in cancer, particularly neuroblastoma and lung cancer.

Professor Alistair Forrest recently joined the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research to continue his important work in Systems Biology and Genomics with a renewed focus on cancer.

Investigating what happens to this cell-cell information superhighway in cancer cells and how they interact with the immune system and blood vessels is a key future direction of the lab as it will provide answers to basic questions about how cancer cells avoid the immune system and recruit a blood supply and has the potential to identify new therapeutic targets.

Professor Alistair Forrest is supported by a senior Cancer Research Trust fellowship and funds from the MACA Ride to Conquer Cancer which he is also supporting through his own ride.

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