We study one particular group of proteins, called Wnt proteins. These signaling proteins dictate the shape and growth of the different tissues during embryonic development. Wnt proteins also control the maintenance of adult tissues, particularly in self-renewing tissues such as skin, breast and intestine.A critical role of Wnt proteins is to maintain the population of tissue stem cells in optimal condition, which places them centre stage for the area of tissue regeneration. Many human diseases – most notably cancer – are linked to defects in Wnt signaling. Cancer cells typically misuse the instructive Wnt signals, leading to unrestrained growth and tumor formation. Due to acquired mutations, cancer cells simply fail to communicate properly and become indifferent to instructions from the surrounding tissue.

In my research group at the Department of Cell Biology, we focus on two central questions: How do cells take orders at the cell surface and process the message to bring about a cellular response? And how do mutations derail these signaling systems in cancer? We study how the biochemical signal is transferred into the cell nucleus, which is a highly regulated process. We aim to understand how the Wnt protein receptors become activated at the cell surface and how they relay signals into the interior of the cell. Understanding the molecular mechanisms will allow us to design strategies to modulate these proteins’ activities. This could be helpful in the development of regenerative therapies or cancer treatments. A lot of questions remain to be answered! It is exciting to discover a novel molecular role or activity. That is why I love this research.

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