Cornell Scientists Tag and Track Lipid Signaling in Cells, a Possible Force in MS Development

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by Inês Martins, PhD |

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Cornell University researchers

Dr. Jeremy Baskin of Cornell University, left, and graduate student Adnan Shami Shah. (Photo credit: Cornell University)

Understanding lipid signaling in multiple sclerosis (MS) may be the key to developing more effective therapies for the disease. New work by researchers at Cornell University could bring us closer to unraveling the role of lipids in MS development.

Lipids are fat molecules that compose the cellular membranes and surround each organelle inside a cell. Besides being major components of the myelin sheaths that envelop nerve cells, lipids are known to participate in signaling processes inside cells, suggesting that alterations in lipid stability may be involved in a number of diseases, including MS.

Usually, to understand the processes in which a protein is involved, scientists tag them with fluorescent probes. But unlike proteins, lipids are very difficult to tag.

The Cornell researchers have been working on techniques that might allow the visualization of lipids within the cell, making it possible to understand the signaling pathways in which they are involved.

Cornell University researchers

Jeremy Baskin, left, examines a Western blot film with graduate student Adnan Shami Shah. (Photo credit: Cornell University.)

“We’re taking advantage of chemical reactions to specifically tag lipids with different kinds of imaging agents, so we can track their behavior within living cells using a fluorescence microscope,” Jeremy Baskin, the principal investigator, said in a press release. “We pick components of cells that are hard to tag, so we have to use our ingenuity as chemists to find ways to selectively tag them.”

Dr. Baskin, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and in the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology, was recently appointed a Nancy and Peter Meinig Family Investigator in the Life Sciences. This award supports and recognizes researchers with outstanding and innovative work in life sciences at Cornell.

“Jeremy is already a leader in an emerging group of young scientists who are bringing expertise in chemistry to address the complicated biology that underlies health and disease,” said Barbara Baird, senior associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Horace White Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. “His laboratory at Cornell is poised to make exciting discoveries in lipid metabolism as well as make available new tools for discoveries in biomedical research more generally.”

While working toward his PhD, Dr. Baskin developed a technique that allowed him to tag sugars on the surface of cells, but recently he became interested in fats. In fact, his recent work demonstrated that lipids in myelin sheaths have a role in the development of leukodystrophy diseases. And because those are neurological disorders with similarities to MS, there may be a link between myelin lipids and MS development.

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