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.