Heads of Laboratories
Elaine Fuchs, Ph.D.
Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Rebecca C. Lancefield Professor
Robin Chemers Neustein Laboratory of Mammalian Cell Biology and Development
Skin harbors our largest reservoirs of stem cells. To maintain the body barrier, epidermis constantly self-renews and hair follicles undergo cyclical bouts of activity. Both stem cell compartments participate in repairing tissue damage after injury. Dr. Fuchs studies where adult stem cells come from, how they make tissues, how they repair wounds and how stem cells malfunction in cancers. Her group focuses on the mechanisms that impart skin stem cells with the ability to self-renew, develop and maintain tissues, and how these cells respond to external cues, and depart from their niche to accomplish these tasks.
Skin stem cells have the remarkable capacity to self-renew in culture. Dr. Fuchs’s laboratory couples in vitro studies with transgenic, gene knockout and short hairpin RNA technologies in mice and high throughput genomic analyses to unravel the molecular pathways that determine the normal balance between stem cell maintenance and differentiation, and how this goes awry in cancers. They are learning how embryonic and adult stem cells establish unique programs of gene expression that determine when they divide and what types of cells they develop into. Recent work in the Fuchs lab has shown that a structure at the base of each strand of hair, the hair follicle, uses mesenchymal-epithelial interactions to acquire a threshold of activating signals that instruct stem cells to divide during periods of hair growth. After the regeneration period, differentiated cells along the lineage return back to the niche, bringing inhibitory signals that return the stem cells to quiescence. These mechanisms provide new insights into how stem cells become activated to repair tissue upon injury, and deactivated once the wound is repaired. The work is accelerating the development of therapeutics to enhance wound repair.
Dr. Fuchs’s lab is also trying to understand how stem cells differentiate into hair follicles, skin epidermis and sweat glands. They have shown that different positive and negative signaling pathways need to be turned on and off at the right time and at the right place for adult skin stem cells to become hair follicles versus epidermis. These signaling pathways control distinct transcription factors and epigenetic modifications, as well as posttranscripitonal alterations in microRNAs, that change the program of gene expression necessary to develop each skin tissue. Dr. Fuchs’s studies reveal new insights into why stem cells become more limited in their tissue options during development, and more limited altogether as we age.
Dr. Fuchs’s studies also reveal that cancer cells hijack the basic mechanisms that enable stem cells to replenish dying cells and to repair wounds. The focus is on squamous cell carcinomas, among the most common and life threatening of human cancers worldwide. The group used high throughput genomics to identify the distinguishing features of so-called “cancer stem cells” and devised technology that permits high throughput functional screens in mice. By identifying mutations that selectively fuel cancer growth, Dr. Fuchs’s group hopes to devise new cancer therapeutics that target cancer stem cells without affecting normal stem cells.
A final focus of the group is to uncover how changes in protein expression govern the packing of skin cells into different tissues and how this differs in cancer. How is the cytoskeleton polarized to orient the mitotic spindle? How do the cells reorient their cytoskeleton in response to injury so that the cells can migrate into the wound site? How can cells adhere to one another and yet dynamically turn over the skin epithelium to generate a brand new epidermis and regrow hairs? As the group probes deeper into understanding how stem cells make different kinds of tissues, they continue to uncover new links to understanding the process of wound repair as well as tumor progression and metastasis.
Dr. Fuchs received her B.S. in chemistry from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in 1972 and her Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1977 from Princeton University. She was a postdoc at MIT and was the Amgen Professor of Basic Sciences at the University of Chicago from 1980 to 2002, when she joined Rockefeller. She has been a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator since 1988.
Dr. Fuchs has received the 2014 Pezcoller Foundation Award for Cancer Research, 2013 Pasarow Award for Cancer Research, 2013 Kligman-Frost Leadership Award, 2013 American Skin Association Lifetime Achievement Award, 2012 March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology, 2011 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, 2011 Passano Prize, 2011 Madison Medal, 2010 L’Oréal-UNESCO Award in the Life Sciences, 2010 Charlotte Friend Award from the American Association for Cancer Research, 2009 National Medal of Science, 2006 Bering Award, 2006 Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Award for Scientific Excellence, 2004 Dickson Prize in Medicine, 2003 Novartis/Drew Award in Biomedical Research, 2002 Cartwright Award from Columbia University and the 1997 Women in Cell Biology Senior Women’s Career Achievement Award. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and its Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. She was named one of the Nation’s Outstanding Scientists by the White House in 1985 and holds honorary doctorates from the University of Illinois and the Mount Sinai and New York University Schools of Medicine.
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