Monthly Archives: January 2009

Have Palladin–Will Travel

Carol Otey’s area of research is cell motility. For the past ten years, the UNC cell and molecular physiologist has focused on a gene she discovered that encodes a protein called palladin. 

She named it after the Renaissance architect Palladio to reflect the protein’s role as a “cellular  architect,” because her initital studies showed that palladin has a critical function in organizing the structural elements of the cell, the  cytoskeleton.

We had a laugh when she first told me about the gene,  because I recalled  the TV Western of the late 1950s-early 1960s in which a character named Paladin, a suave, black clad pistolero-for-hire, flashed a business  card printed with a chess knight emblem and the words “Have Gun Will Travel Wire Paladin San Francisco.” And this guy did get around, a lot.

This comparison between Paladin and the gene protein is apt because since the original description of palladin was published in 2000 , new results demonstrate that the protein has an essential role in the process of cell migration… “because cells have to constantly remodel their cytoskeleton in order to move,” Otey says.

Currently, Otey and colleagues are looking at palladin’s cell migrational role in embryonic development. Her research also suggests that in the adult body palladin plays a role in wound healing. While levels of the protein are high in embryos, they drop off as young animals (and humans) mature.  But in adults with an injury to the skin, brain or cardiovascular system, palladin levels increase immediately in those cells closest to the wound.

Yet there’s more to this travel story: the spread of cancer. To date, palladin has been implicated in cancers of the breast and pancreas. In breast cancer,  Otey’s recent findings show that palladin levels are higher than normal in the most invasive sub-set of tumor cells. What this means remains to be clarified, and Otey is on the case. Might there also be implications for clinical intervention?

Meanwhile, stick around, pardner, for future installments on the diverse functions of this cellular mover and shaker.

FYI:  Among the writers for Have Gun Will Travel was Gene Rodenberry. Yep, the guy who created that TV series about  a band of intergalactic wanderers,  Star Trek.

Les Lang

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Shooting Oneself in the Foot

Scientists may never tell you this, but when it comes to announcing the results of  their intense labors over many months or years, theirs may be the only profession on this spinning mudball that almost ritualistically requires a self-inflicted wounding.

Masochism this is not.  Standard protocol for getting the word out about research via peer-reviewed science journals  requires  a kind of  “buyer beware,” the acknowledgement of anything else that might explain or could invalidate one’s findings. 

In other words, “We’re dancing for joy about our work, but first we’ll shoot ourselves in the foot.”

In his brilliant 1974 Caltech commencement address, “Cargo Cult Science,” Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman, put it succintly:

“It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid — not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results… Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can — if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong — to explain it… In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.”

Perhaps Feynman  understood the tendency among Homo saps everywhere to pay greater homage to  success than to integrity, scientific or otherwise,  even if the means to achieving it include promoting ignorance and self-delusion.  

Perhaps his words  to the tassled graduates contain a cautionary message for  us all.  Having climbed down from the trees to stand erect,  we continue to pay mightily for our benighted actions.

Les Lang

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