A West Virginia University researcher is examining how and what cells communicate to each other in order to better understand cancer diagnosis and treatment as well as the diagnosis of birth defects, like certain heart conditions.

http://wvutoday.wvu.edu/resources/1/1351280450_md.jpg“Cells talk to each other,” said Shuo Wei, assistant professor of biology and biochemistry. “We need to know as much about those signaling pathways as possible so that we can understand why some cells spur healthy growth and development and some do not.”

Wei has been awarded a $1.44 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Science, a subordinate institute of the National Institutes of Health, to examine the signaling pathway that promotes both neural crest cell development and cancer cell development.

The specific cells Wei studies, called neural crest cells, are responsible for the development of structures in the face, heart, and digestive tract at embryonic stages. They are also remarkably similar in some ways to cancer cells—with important research implications.

“Neural crest cells move around the body like cancer cells,” Wei explained. “Obviously, we want to stop migration of cancer cells while facilitating neural crest cells. But in both cases, it’s important to understand the underlying mechanism of their migration in the body.”

“The basic methodology of the research is simple” Wei said. “If we can figure out how the pathway works for neural crest cells, we can figure out how it works for cancer cells.”

“Dr. Wei’s research is important because it facilitates the development of new diagnostic and therapeutic approaches in medicine,” said Vice President for Research Fred King. “He is a tremendously talented researcher and an asset to both WVU and the scientific community.”

The grant is the second NIH grant for Wei since he arrived at WVU four years ago. In 2013 he received a $220,000 grant from the National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research which focused on the role neural crest cells play in facial development and on birth defects like cleft palates.

The NIH, which includes 27 institutes and centers, is the largest single source of medical research funding not merely in the United States, but in the world. WVU currently has a total of 12 active grants with the NIH, for a total of nearly $3.3 million.