How did we get here?! A question not necessarily linked to cellular biology, but the answer is essential for all life. How do proteins (molecular machines) travel inside the cell? How can we help when it goes wrong? Can we hijack these pathways to produce revolutionary new drugs? My name is Katie Downes. I’m a second year PhD student at the University of Manchester and my research aim is to answer those questions.
Inside the world of the cell, proteins are powerful machines performing all sorts of crazy processes where space and time are key. Knowing how they get to where they need to be is fundamental to life as we know it, as exemplified by what happens when it goes wrong. Diseases such as Alzheimer’s, epilepsy and blindness are linked to issues with intracellular transport. Yet the relatively simple question of how did that get there is still puzzling scientists. Imagine rush hour on the metro then add 20,000 proteins and you’re still not quite imagining how much is going on.
Research in this field is highly applicable to a number of real-life scenarios. Biopharmaceuticals, biological drugs produced in cells, are increasingly being used to target difficult diseases such as cancer. Currently these therapies are super expensive, as production yields are low and development costs high. By gaining a greater understanding of what determines how a protein is produced provides a torch light in the dark for these emerging therapies.
Day to day my research involves fiddling with some high-tech microscopes, watching fluorescent proteins move around inside the cell and performing a series of complex analyses to generate of library of movement. This library can then be used to interrogate various methods of intracellular transport and ultimately create a comprehensive map of intracellular transport.
How did I get here?
Throughout secondary school I was determined STEM wasn’t for me. However, one particularly inspirational teacher unlocked what was to become a lifelong passion for the sciences. I went on to study Biological Sciences at Durham University, with a focus on Cell Biology and Biochemistry. My lectures would frequently blow my mind at how awesomely clever biochemical systems and proteins are – defined by logic and simplicity.
As you can see, I am a true nerd. However, it wasn’t just my wonderment which drew me to Biology. Through studying Biology, I realised I could help people and make a difference. During my industrial placement year, I worked in the Research and Development Department for a biopharmaceutical company, producing therapeutic antibodies for clinical trials. From then on, I became fascinated with biopharmaceuticals and the concept that we can harness all of that awesome biochemistry I had learnt during my undergraduate and use it to tackle serious diseases. I was shocked to find how much fundamental cell biology is still unknown. It became clear to me that if true progress was to be made in global health, more research was required and I wanted to be part of it. After graduating I jumped at the chance at a PhD.
The world of intracellular transport is a fascinating place. So much is yet to be discovered. But I can provide a little teaser for those who are interested!
Throughout school you are taught that cells are a nice sphere, with a nucleus at the centre and a few other important bits, called organelles, floating around. In reality cells are densely packed environments where everything is in motion. In-fact there is a skeleton of sorts, a cytoskeleton which supports the overall structure of the cell – imagine scaffolding running throughout the cell. Some of this scaffolding also acts as a road, providing a track for molecular motors. These motors waddle along the tracks carrying various cargo. When “long-distance” transport is required, these motors are employed to pick up and drop off their cargo. But, how do they know when they are needed? How do they know what to pick up and where to put down? How do they know what are carrying?
For more information on studying Biological Sciences at Durham University or the University of Manchester:
Interested in intracellular transport?
- Professor Ronald D. Vale discusses his discovery of the motor protein kinesin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=165&v=mBo_o0iO68U&feature=emb_logo
- twitter.com/MAG2ART to see for yourself how amazing live cell imaging is.
Want to learn more about biopharmaceuticals?