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Biology professor wins $450K grant to study cells important to cancer research


DeKalb, Ill. — How and why does cancer spread from one part of the body to another? Those are key questions behind the research of NIU biological sciences professor Olivier Devergne, whose work has been bolstered by a significant new grant award.

Olivier Devergne, a professor of biological sciences at NIU, has been awarded a $447,000 grant to study epithelial tissues, the most common type of tissue in the human body.

Devergne studies epithelial tissues, the most common type of tissue in the human body. Look at your hand or arm—you’re looking at epithelial tissues.

Composed of epithelial cells, these tissues form the outer layer of skin, organs and glands and can regulate the uptake of nutrients, or in the case of lungs, the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

With malignancies of epithelial tissue accounting for the majority of cancers, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences has awarded Devergne a grant of $447,000 to gain a better understanding of the molecular mechanisms at work in healthy epithelial cell structures.

“These mechanisms are affected during cancer and can lead to metastasis,” or cancer spread, Devergne says. “The poor prognosis of cancer patients is strongly associated with metastasis, rather than the primary tumor site.”

Graduate student Hemin Shah works in the laboratory of Professor Devergne .

Devergne’s study will focus on a common feature of epithelial tissue—the presence of an extracellular structure called the “basement membrane,” which is secreted by the epithelial cells and anchors these cells by providing mechanical support. This basement membrane is important for animal development, especially the biological processes that causes an organ to develop and maintain its shape.

“You might imagine this membrane as a sort of corset that helps shape and organize organ tissue,” Devergne says. “The loss of integrity and mis-regulation of the basement membrane have been associated with progression of many cancers—including lung, breast and colorectal cancers—by promoting metastasis.”

Despite its important roles in animal development and in cancer progression, the mechanisms ensuring the health of the basement membrane remain largely elusive.

NIU Biological Sciences Professor Olivier Devergne.

“A better understanding of this process will provide new insights in establishment and maintenance of tissue, and targets for anti-cancer therapies,” Devergne says. “Thus, the long-term goal of my lab is to identify the genes and biological pathways involved in the proper placement of the basement membrane.”

NIU students will help Devergne carry out his research over the next three years. Current graduate students working on the project include Hemin Shah and Nusrat Jahan, as well as undergraduate Leif Verace and lab manager Trent Davids. Their study will focus on the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, a model organism that has been extensively studied and can provide insights into human biological systems. (Six Nobel prizes have resulted from research on fruit flies.)

“The genes important for tissue formation in fruit flies are also found in people,” Devergne says. “The more we learn about how this tissue works, the better well be able to understand what goes wrong during cancer.”

Media Contact: Tom Parisi

About NIU

Northern Illinois University is a student-centered, nationally recognized public research university, with expertise that benefits its region and spans the globe in a wide variety of fields, including the sciences, humanities, arts, business, engineering, education, health and law. Through its main campus in DeKalb, Illinois, and education centers for students and working professionals in Chicago, Hoffman Estates, Naperville, Oregon and Rockford, NIU offers more than 100 areas of study while serving a diverse and international student body.

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