Doctoral Research on Fruit Flies Seeks Answers to Cell Signaling Problems

CAMDEN — In a research lab on the Rutgers–Camden campus, Matt Niepielko reaches for a vial containing about 50 fruit flies and begins to observe them. The tiny species may seem insignificant — or annoying, if they’re floating around your kitchen — but in this room, each fly plays an important role in our understanding of genetics.

Niepielko, a doctoral student in computational and integrative biology at Rutgers–Camden, is using the flies to answer questions about a cell signaling pathway that can cause cancer when something goes wrong.

“We have about 20 fruit fly species in here and the EGFR pathway is being used differently in each of them,” Niepielko explains.

The EGFR (epidermal growth factor receptor) is a highly conserved regulator of tissue development across all animals, including humans. In other words, “it catches chemical signals from other cells,” Niepielko says.

“The EGFR is like a baseball glove that will catch the signal, and the signal directs the cell to divide,” he says. “If a cell gets the wrong information, it could become overactive or underactive.”

In a healthy cell, the EGFR allows cells to grow and divide, but faulty regulation of the cell signaling process can lead to cell mutations or abnormal growth.

“Many cancers and developmental defects are associated with something that goes wrong with this receptor,” says Nir Yakoby, an assistant professor of biology at Rutgers–Camden. “Each signaling pathway has multiple components, and there are multiple components inside the cell that eventually lead to changes in gene expression.”

The complexity of the EGFR network has been studied, but the mechanisms governing the signaling changes that guide the morphology of cells are unknown.

The ovaries of the common fruit fly provide a tractable genetic system that allows Niepielko and Yakoby to study the mechanisms that control EGFR activation using genetic and mathematical modeling.

“The more you know about how the system is working, the better chance you’ll have to correct something that goes wrong,” Yakoby says.

If the research team discovers how the system breaks down, it could lead to better treatments for such illnesses as cancer.

“If you understand what genes are involved in changing the signaling pathway, better drugs can be developed to target those illnesses,” Niepielko says. “It’s exciting to be a part of research that could have such a significant impact.”

Benedetto Piccoli, the Joseph and Loretta Lopez Chair in Mathematics at Rutgers–Camden and Ph.D. program director for Rutgers–Camden’s Center for Computational and Integrative Biology, is collaborating on the project by coming up with mathematical formulas that explain the signaling changes.

The research is being funded by a three-year, $353,378 grant from the National Institutes of Health.

A Toms River resident, Niepielko earned his bachelor’s degree from Stockton College and his master’s degree from Rutgers–Camden. He is the 2013 recipient of Rutgers–Camden’s Lansbury Prize for Academic Excellence, which recognizes outstanding performance by a graduate student.

Yakoby, of Princeton, is a 2012 recipient of the prestigious CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation. Yakoby earned his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from Hebrew University in Israel, and conducted post-doctoral research at the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University.

Piccoli is a preeminent scholar highly regarded for his contributions in applied mathematics, particularly in the areas of control theory and the theory of hyperbolic conservation laws. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Padua in Italy and his master’s and doctoral degrees from the International School for Advanced Studies in Italy.

Ed Moorhouse
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