Islets of youth pg. 4
Courtesy of Christopher V.E. Wright, D.Phil.
“I had somehow a gut feeling that the homeobox genes were a huge breakthrough,” he recalls.
De Robertis set Wright to work on the frog Xenopus laevis. By 1988, they had discovered the first homeobox gene expressed exclusively in the endoderm.
The gene, eventually named pdx1, for pancreatic and duodenal homeobox factor 1, is essential for development of the pancreas – as well as for maintenance of the adult beta cell. The pdx1 gene encodes a protein, called a transcription factor, which turns on other genes.
Wright’s career was launched at a time when scientists were just learning the “language” of the cell. He came to Vanderbilt in 1990 to work with Brigid Hogan, Ph.D., now chair of Cell Biology at Duke University, who helped pioneer methods for introducing extra genetic material into mice embryos.
Another technique, gene targeting, enabled the Vanderbilt team – which by then included Magnuson, Roland Stein, Ph.D., and Patricia Labosky, Ph.D. -- to study what happens to the pancreas when pdx1 is “knocked out” of embryonic stem cells in the mouse.
Since then, Wright and his colleagues have continued to elaborate the role that pdx1 plays in pancreas development. Among their findings: