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Biologists Awarded Grant To Try To Learn How Cancer Cells Metastasize

Frog embryos used to determine how cell migration is controlled.

Reptiles Magazine 0807
Columbian Redtail Boa
Frog Sterility And Human Medicine

Two developmental biologists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst will study the genetic control of cell migration in frogs with the aid of a five-year $1.9 million U.S. National Institutes of Health grant that the pair received. Their study is expected to help to determine how cancer cells metastasize to other parts of the body.

The biologists, Dominique Alfandari and embryologist Hélène Cousin, previously discovered that a protease called ADAM 13 possesses what they deem as powerful cell regulating functions. They have also determined that ADAM 13 is necessary for cell migration. The NIH grant will help them to find out how ADAM 13's regulating function works and how cell migration works during embryonic development. They also want to determine how this cell migration is controlled in the embryonic stage of a frog's development.


The biologists say that experiments that would take years in mice can be completed in a few weeks with frog embryos. They will track individual cells in the frog embryos and how ADAM 13 controls proteins in the cranial neural crest (CNC), or the face and jaw of the frog. In their experiments with thousands of embryos, the researchers block the action of individual proteins to determine how CNC migration works when proteins are missing. The researchers are able to perform this work because Cousin is one of the few scientists in the world who has the knowledge to graft cells into a host embryo.

 “If you take ADAM 13 protein out of a cell while it’s in the embryo, the cells can’t migrate. The odd part is that if we remove it from cells outside an embryo, they don’t need the protein to move. This is mysterious because for most proteins, if you remove them, the cell will not be normal. This is a special quality we really want to learn more about,” said Alfandari. “We have progressed immensely in the last five years, but we still have a huge amount to learn, and we don’t know how far we’ve come or whether we are more than halfway there, because we don’t know all of what that protein does,” he said. “Fortunately, there’s a high reward because anything we find can be adapted to cancer. We may learn how cancer cells migrate to invade new organs, and how to prevent it.”