In the beginning  pg. 3

Toward that goal, Lee and colleagues are taking advantage of high-throughput screening methods and an in vitro model based on extracts of Xenopus embryos that Lee developed as a postdoctoral fellow.

“We were able to recapitulate the pathway in a test tube,” says Lee. This method provides an efficient tool to screen for molecules that either inhibit or activate the pathway.

“We’re now using this assay to do drug screens,” Lee says. “The idea is that if any of these molecules work out, they could be used as tools to study the pathway—and further down the line, as potential drugs to inhibit the pathway.”

Lee is screening the large catalog of small molecules available through the Vanderbilt Institute of Chemical Biology, as well as extracts from medicinal plants and herbs through Harvard University’s high-throughput screening facility.

At Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Ethan Lee, M.D., Ph.D., (top left), Jason Jessen, Ph.D., (bottom left), and Michael Cooper, M.D., (right), are studying the striking similarities between the deveopment of an embryo and the growth of a tumor. The two fields "have intersected in a wonderful way," says Cooper.
Photos by Anne Rayner
Although currently there are no chemotherapeutic drugs that specifically inhibit the Wnt pathway, pharmaceutical and biotech companies have taken an interest.

“In the future, I think you’ll see more companies targeting developmental pathways with the realization that they play a role in cancer,” Lee predicts.

Jessen is also attempting to unite the worlds of developmental and cancer biology with the help of a tiny tropical fish.

Zebrafish have a long history in developmental biology research. Their embryos are transparent and develop outside the mother. They also develop rapidly and are inexpensive to maintain, making zebrafish embryos an efficient model for studying genetic and environmental factors that influence early development.

While indispensable for development research, they haven’t been widely used in cancer research—yet.

As a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Vanderbilt developmental biologist Lila Solnica-Krezel, Ph.D., Jessen realized that one of the key events he was studying in zebrafish—gastrulation—might offer some insights into the aspect of cancer that is the most deadly—metastasis.

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