Newswise — A molecular study at Upstate Medical University that could have broad implications for stem cell research, developmental biology and the study of human diseases has received $161,000 in funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The two-year study is led by Francesca Pignoni, Ph.D., associate professor of ophthalmology, biochemistry and molecular biology and neuroscience and physiology, in her laboratory at Upstate’s Neuroscience Research Building.

Using the Drosophila fly model, Pignoni is studying how a new protein— discovered in her laboratory to be necessary and sufficient for the self-renewal of the germ-line stem cell in the fly ovary—functions at the molecular level. During reproduction, the germ-line stem cell allows genetic material to be passed to progeny.

“The information gained from this portion of the study will advance our understanding of stem cell maintenance over an organism’s lifetime and lead to a longer-term project,” said Pignoni.

“Our discovery will influence future stem cell research, and may have implications for fertility studies, but a fun part of discovering the function of a new factor is that we get to name it, and we have chosen Lilipod, or Lili for short, for this new protein.”

Pignoni also discovered that Lili appears to play a role in the context of the BMP signaling pathway. The BMP pathway serves as a major regulator of a cell’s fate, its ability to grow and multiply and to differentiate into a more specialized cell type.

“Interestingly, Lili appears to serve at the level of the BMP receptor helping the cell receive or interpret the BMP signal. We are currently looking into its role in other signaling process as well,” says Pignoni. “We hope to learn whether Lili serves as a dedicated component of the BMP pathway or as a component of a more general biological process that impacts multiple signaling systems. In the latter case, its dysfunction would profoundly affect the ability of cells to communicate with each other.”

Pignoni says that, even if restricted to BMP signaling, a better understanding of how Lili works at a cellular level could lead to a better understanding of how BMP dysfunction causes cancer and other human disorders.

Through this study, Pignoni is also characterizing a novel partner of Lili, that is also required to maintain germ-line stem cells in the fly ovary. She says that further studies in other Drosophila stem cell systems (e.g. male germ-line and/or intestinal stem cells) and testing in vertebrate species are being planned for her laboratory.

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