Studying the interplay between metabolites and cell signaling in multicellular organization
The microenvironment experienced by cancer cells plays a fundamental role in how malignant they become. Interactions with other cells, including healthy stromal cells in our body, are critical for the progression of tumors. These interactions occur in changing environments where time and location are important factors. Also, cancer cells compete for some nutrients while they may share or exchange others. This creates a balance between cooperation and competition that shapes the dynamics of tumor growth. Since ecologists have been dealing with this type of problems for a long time, we are borrowing some of their concepts and approaches to understand tumor development better.
Cell migration is essential for animal morphogenesis and adult functions such as tissue repair and immune response. Unfortunately, cell migration is also a critical feature of cancer. Indeed is the dispersion of cancer, rather than the initial tumor, what makes this disease so dangerous. We have learnt that cells often do not migrate alone but form groups that move in a cohesive manner. These cell groups have to take collective decisions such as where to go, how to invade a new tissue or if the group should form some kind of structure. How do they do this? We are investigating the role of nutrients in these and other collective decisions that moving cells have to make. We hope to unveil some of the fundamental mechanisms behind collective cell migration and potentially learn important lessons about tumor dispersion.
We are studying how the interplay between conventional cell signaling pathways and cell metabolism determines proper cell differentiation and eventually, the formation of the embryo. Cell signals such as growth factors and cytokines are known to modulate cell differentiation. However, little is known about the role of metabolites in this process. Metabolites are required to fuel all cellular functions including morphogenesis and differentiation. At the same time, recent evidence is revealing that cells can change their phenotypes after sensing particular metabolites. We think that cell signaling and communication is heavily modulated by concentrations of nutrients and other chemicals in the cellular microenvironment.