Before tackling a scientific problem, it can be helpful to actually see the culprit. Especially one so small, it’s only visible through special microscopes.
That was an obstacle facing Associate Professor Chantilly Apollon of Holy Names University, fellow biologists from San Francisco State University and other colleagues as they tried unraveling mysteries surrounding a family of proteins called WNTs (pronounced: went). Results from their study appear in the July edition of Developmental Biology.
Scientists understood that WNTs play a role in some cancers, particularly colorectal cancer, and that the protein’s role was connected to its ability to signal other cells.
“They’re important to communication,” Apollon says. “An analogy that’s often used is: there’s a talking cell and a listening cell. WNTs are the talking part. And the listening cell receives that signal and changes its behavior in some way. It might divide — and that’s why cancer is linked with WNTs — or it might change its shape or change what other proteins it makes.”
But first, researchers needed to see how the cells behave, a task they’ve historically had trouble accomplishing. Apollon and her SF State colleagues figured out a solution. Her research relied on cells from freshwater minnows called zebrafish, while her colleagues used chick embryos and other cultured cells.
“We were successfully able to add a green fluorescent protein to make a fusion and that allows — under the right fluorescent light — you to see the protein and how the (WNT) cell is behaving and how it’s moving,” Apollon explains.
It’s an early step in figuring out a far larger cancer puzzle, including future treatments, she adds.
In the meantime, Apollon makes sure her Holy Names students benefit from her research, from inviting SF State students to present their master’s theses at HNU to giving her upper division students lab assignments testing parts of the WNT signaling pathway.
“My long-term goal for here is to build a project I can engage HNU students with that uses zebrafish as a model organism, so I can bring things to the classroom here and bring students to other facilities,” she says. “It really keeps things modern to have them see current research.”