March 17, 2004

Mellman Speaks On Cell Biology

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Speaking to a packed room in the Biotechnology Building last Friday, Ira Mellman, professor of cell biology and immunobiology and chair of the department of cell biology at Yale University, delved into the latest research on understanding the asymmetry and protein transport of cells.

His seminar, “Generation and Maintenance of Epithelial Cell Polarity,” was part of Cancer Biology Lectures, a series designed to bring in world class scientists and stimulate conversation on cancer biology. The seminar was hosted by the Cornell department of molecular biology and genetics and the Cornell University / Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research partnership, which was responsible for the construction of the $2 million Good Manufacturing Practices facility in Stocking Hall.

“It’s really basic research, and until you understand how cells function, you can’t understand how they misfunction,” said Prof. Tony Bretscher, molecular biology and genetics, who does work related to polarity in epithelial cells.

Mellman presented the results of multiple complex experiments.

“All of these experiments are related to understanding how cells make use of the asymmetry induced by the environment,” he explained.

“This is how a cell senses its environment; without the capacity to [become asymmetrical], you wouldn’t exist,” he added.

Mellman said that there are specific routes for protein transport in epithelial cells, and that scientists are working to comprehend why certain proteins are sent to the top of the cell and others to the bottom of the cell.

A substantial number of perspective graduate students were in attendance at the lecture, which Mellman opened by asking how many had also applied to Yale. The response was none, but Mellman said that when speaking at UC-Berkeley he decided to try to recruit perspective students to Yale and succeeded in convincing at least one.

“Mellman should’ve mentioned that some of the founding components of cell polarity were discovered at Cornell,” Bretscher noted.

“He studies how the cells know the inside from the outside,” said Carl Batt, Director of the Ludwig Center at Cornell and faculty member in food science.

“This is a complicated system [that occurs] for a simple purpose: to make sure we aren’t inside out,” he added.

“[Mellman] was talking about the transporting of protein to the surface of the cell; how proteins get there and determining the signal sequence,” said Todd Vannelli, who works for the Ludwig Cancer Research Institute at Cornell.

Mellman said that future plans in the field include further research of details and mechanisms of protein transport and cell asymmetry. He is the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Cell Biology and is designated to be the director of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, a global organization, starting next January.

Mellman said that soon he may have the opportunity to work more directly with cancer patients to see if what is predicted actually happens.

Archived article by Vanessa Hoffman