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Say “matrix” and visions of a kick-boxing, black-clad Keanu Reeves may come to mind. No, this is not a movie review.
Every day, a small army of Harvard Medical School researchers reports to The Life Sciences Building in Boston’s Longwood Medical Area. It’s new, ultra high-tech. It towers over its neighboring hospitals and research facilities and, with its clean lines, giant glass panels and sweeping marble stairway, would be a set designer’s dream for another sequel to “The Matrix”. The men and women who spend so much of their lives in this futuristic workplace are pulmonologists, oncologists, nephrologists, neurologists; they are natives of France, Norway, Sweden, Finland, India, China, Japan, Turkey, and the U.S. They study and work under the leadership of Dr. Raghu Kalluri, Chief of the Division of Matrix Biology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Composed of proteins and found throughout the body, the matrix serves as a platform for cells. Kalluri says just ten years ago, scientists believed that a cell contained all the information it needed to function. Researchers have since discovered that the extracellular matrix actually tells the cells how to behave. After countless division, cells become liver cells, kidney cells, brain cells.all kinds of cells. Kalluri says the matrix supporting kidney cells, for example, tells those cells to “behave like a kidney”. Transfer them to a matrix in the brain and they’re no longer acting like kidney cells, but rather assuming the function of brain cells. Kalluri says as many as 50 different human diseases can be traced to defects in proteins outside the cell, which would explain in part, why the matrix has become a field of study in itself. And matrix biology has served as a powerful attraction for these graduate students and medical professionals from a range of disciplines.
New Jersey native, Scott Potenta, whose research paper had just been accepted the day we spoke, says he’s always been interested in matrix proteins and their effect on cell behavior. He is studying the way blood vessels react in diseases such as cancer. Valerie LeBleu, a native of France and the first Harvard graduate student to work at the Matrix Biology Lab, is trying to find alternatives to dialysis for treatment of Alport Syndrome, a genetic kidney disease that affects 1 in 5,000 people. LeBleu and Potenta say they appreciate the richness of the laboratory, which is obvious in the diversity of the workforce and the wide representation of specialties, all of which foster the sharing of knowledge and experience. Formal discussions at stations in the main laboratory, as well as informal conversation over coffee in the break room can and do give way to new ideas, and more than a few “aha!” moments. Both of these young researchers and their colleagues made it clear to this reporter, it’s a privilege to work in this cutting-edge environment.
Their days are spent comparing graphs on a split computer screen or peering into microscopes deciphering cells on a slide, manipulating organic solutions, each with their own requirements for survival: simple refrigeration or having to be gingerly lowered into giant cylinders, filled with dry ice.
In the next row of lab stations, is Dr Keizo Kanasaki, a Japanese native and research fellow in medicine. Kanasaki collaborated with Kalluri on a paper reported in the May 11, 2008 online “Nature”. They theorize that preeclampsia is actually linked to an absence of 2-ME, and that administering that protein to women with the disease would be a viable treatment. Because this is a women’s disease, you might think that Kanasaki is an obstetrician. He is a nephrologist; he studies the kidney. Which brings us back to the common ground for all of these dedicated researchers…the matrix. Discoveries within that mass of protein, the scaffolding for cells throughout the human body, could yield the keys to unlocking the mystery of pre-eclampsia and, hopefully, lead to prevention.