NOV 22, 2023 10:41 AM PST

When Cells Touch, Gene Expression Changes

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

The cells of an organism, including humans, interact closely with one another; cells have myriad ways to send and receive signals from each other and their environment that can influence how they function. One method of communication is direct contact. Scientists have now used a cutting-edge approach to learn more about how cell-to-cell contact can affect gene expression. This type of cellular communication is particularly crucial during development. It is also related to cancer. The findings have been reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Image credit: Pixabay

"This study is really a proof of principle, to show that we can use this approach to better understand how neighboring cells influence each other on a genetic scale," said study co-author Rajan Gogna, PhD, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, among other appointments. "To our knowledge, this is the first study of its kind to uncover the genetic changes associated with cell interactions,"

Cells in the human body do not behave as individuals; they work together. The genes that are active in cells also depend on where those cells are located, and what they are interacting with, noted study co-author Paul B. Fisher, PhD, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, among other appointments. Ultimately, the researchers wanted to know more about how cells communicate with each other, and what they say.

Instead of relying only on single-cell RNA sequencing, which can provide a snapshot of what genes are active in one cell at a certain time, the researchers developed a method that could also reveal more about where genes were being expressed. Gene expression patterns in small cell clusters were assessed, and modeling was used to show how gene activity changed when certain cells were touching.

This approach was used to analyze how cells in the lens of the eye and neural progenitors interact. The results confirmed that this method could accurately identify which genes were activated when these cells made contact. The method was also validated with other research data from studies of cells in microenvironments.

"Our ultimate goal is to apply this method to better understand how cancer affects us. We want to understand how cancer cells interact with other cells in the body and vice versa," Gogna said. "We want to know how cancer cells develop around our normal cells and how they respond when exposed to therapies."

"When developing therapies to treat different tumors, it's just as important, and sometimes more important, to think about the environment where the tumor is growing," Fisher said. "You have to account for both the tumor and its environment to more effectively stop the cancer in its tracks."

Sources: Virginia Commonwealth University, Proceedings of the National Academy of SciencesMolecular Systems Biology

About the Author
Bachelor's (BA/BS/Other)
Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
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