Cells, like human beings, need to maintain contact with their neighbours to preserve adequate communication and to develop a fine society to live in. If people lose contact with each other, they will stop communicating and will adopt inappropriate behaviour such as roaming around. In cell biology, this phenomenon is referred to as cancer, and more specifically metastasis. Cancer cells can break away, travel in the body and invade distant organs because in general, cancer cells do not stick together as good as healthy cells.
To cure the initial source of disease, it would be easier if these cancer cells can be stopped from spreading to unwanted areas. There are some specific signals and molecules required to form and maintain solid contacts and to prevent them from moving in an unwanted fashion. Rap1 and its family are key players in this process, but their function is not well defined yet.
Since epithelial tumors account for the vast majority of human cancers, I use human epithelial cells to understand the molecular mechanisms involved in a specific type of cell-cell contact called â€œE-cadherin-based cell-cell adhesionâ€, as well as the role of the Rap1 family in maintaining the interaction between cells. For instance, the disruption of E-cadherin-based cell-cell adhesion is one of the numerous cellular changes occurring during epithelial malignancy. Therefore, my research intends to determine how this metastatic process can be stopped and better regulated. I am investigating what makes these cells stick together and how do they maintain their contacts.
Although my work is still in progress, I have identified so far some novel Rap1 family members that are involved in the formation of E-cadherin-based cell-cell contacts. These molecules are required for proper maintenance of a normal cell environment, otherwise the cells could move to other tissues and become cancerous. Since the regulation of E-cadherin-based cell-cell adhesion is a critical process to prevent blood vessel leakage and metastasis, these molecules are potential therapeutic targets. In a long-term perspective, a more precise understanding of the molecular mechanisms regulating cell-cell adhesion will provide novel insights into the treatment of various types of cancer.