EGFR – one protein’s story

Leigh MacMillan, Ph.D.
Published: February, 2003

Illustration by Dominic Doyle
We invited you to take a journey into a busy cell, to learn about proteins – how they’re made and what they do. We’ve selected as our guide the EGF receptor, a protein involved in signaling pathways that regulate cell growth.

EGF (epidermal growth factor) and its receptor are special to Vanderbilt University. Stanley Cohen, Ph.D., now an emeritus professor of Biochemistry, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1986 for his discovery of EGF and its role in cell growth. Cohen and colleagues were the first to characterize the EGF receptor and describe its fundamental features.

EGF and its receptor are now known to be members of a large family of proteins, all involved together in the complex regulation of cell growth. These family members are targets for drugs designed to block the abnormal growth characteristics of cancer cells.

We all start out the same way—being pieced together like so many beaded necklaces—according to the plans. And yet, even though we come off the same assembly lines, we are not at all the same.The plans instruct some of us to act like two-by-fours, supporting the walls. They direct others of us to act as couriers, or janitors, or assembly line workers. Others still get sent out, to
work in the larger world.

Our world is a single cell. We are proteins.

You can think of our world, the cell, as a sort of factory—a very tiny factory, and only one among the millions that make up the human body. It is a place busy with manufacturing. We are the factory’s products and its staff. So really, we manufacture ourselves. But not
without the plans.

Here’s how it works. The plans—the DNA blueprints—are stored in a central office, the nucleus, where they are cared for, you might even say coddled, by proteins. The proteins in the nucleus fancy themselves as having the most important jobs. They rush in to patch tiny tears in the blueprints. Or they copy parts of the plans to send to the assembly lines for the production of new proteins. Or they coat the DNA and keep it safe during storage. They do keep things humming in the central office, but still I’d rather have my job—at the factory wall.

I am a receptor, specifically an EGF receptor. I spend my time at the cell surface, part of me poking out of the cell, part poking in. Kind of like the doorman who greets Dorothy and her friends at the Emerald City with his head and upper body sticking out the door, the rest safely
inside. I will tell you about what I do at the cell surface, but first I want to give you a little background on how I got here.

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