NIH grant engages students in spinal cord research

Undergraduate biology students will get a chance to watch the earliest stages of spinal cord development and work toward solving a medical mystery, due to a new three-year, $300,000 grant received by SF State researcher Laura Burrus.

A photo of Laura Burrus, professor of biology

Professor of Biology Laura Burrus

Burrus, professor of biology, and her students will use the grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to investigate the roles played by an enzyme called Porcupine in vertebrate embryos, including the formation, patterning and expansion of the spinal cord.

Mutations in the human version of Porcupine cause a rare disease called focal dermal hypoplasia, or FDH. People with the disorder can develop distinctive skin abnormalities along with a wide variety of defects in organs throughout the body.

Burrus' research team will observe Porcupine in action in a chick embryo. Chick embryos -- not much more than a flat disk of cells when cultured in a shallow dish -- are a classic system for studying early development and a good choice for an undergraduate lab experience.

"The beauty of this project is that it's pretty easy to culture these embryos and put them in front of an undergraduate," Burrus said. "The embryo is flat and easy to watch under a microscope, and you can directly observe the formation of the neural tube and heart. It is a marvel to see the heart beat in a very young embryo."

The goal is to discover exactly how Porcupine interacts with a family of signaling proteins called the Wnt proteins, which guide spinal cord development. Burrus and others have shown that Porcupine helps attach lipid molecules to Wnt proteins—a modification that is essential for proper Wnt function.

But it is still unclear which Wnt pathways are affected by the enzyme, something Burrus and her students hope to discover by putting molecules that block Porcupine's action directly on the chick embryos and observing how spinal development goes awry.

The grant was made by NIH's Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA) program, which is designed to support smaller research projects at universities that do not usually receive major NIH research grants. Work on the project will begin in June 2012.

This type of grant, Burrus said, helps support SF State's commitment to providing research opportunities to undergraduate and masters students, especially those from underrepresented minority groups. Burrus has mentored 20 such students, including biology undergraduate Gina Pay and Shea Feeney, who have been perfecting a method to culture the chick embryos for the upcoming experiments.

Undergraduates will join the project for independent study credit, working about 15 hours per week in the lab and participating in lab meetings and a journal club that reviews the latest research. For most of these students, Burrus said, "this is really their first major experience in a lab, and it's incredibly important training."

And it is the kind of training that students need to pursue a Ph.D. -- a path chosen by 19 of the students Burrus has mentored in her 14 years at SF State. "We don't hire them to wash dishes, we want them here to do research," Burrus said proudly of her former students. "They've always been my colleagues, and now they're my peers."

-- University Communications