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Scientist-in-training deciphers the language of protein communication

November 21, 2012

It’s been a busy year for Dr. Jing Jin, a post-doctoral researcher in the lab of Dr. Tony Pawson , Distinguished Scientist and Apotex Chair in Molecular Oncology at Mount Sinai’s Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute.  
With Dr. Pawson, Dr. Jin is waging the war on cancer by paving the way for a new generation of cancer drugs and therapies. His work builds on the pioneering discovery by Dr. Pawson that cells communicate and control their own and each other’s behavior through orchestration of transient protein interactions governed by rapidly acting modifications such as phosphorylation. These signaling networks act as the puppet strings that control processes such as cell fate, cell division and cell death.
Inspired by Dr. Pawson’s ideas around cell signalling, Dr. Jin focused his own research at the Lunenfeld on the modular aspects of signaling networks, and the mechanisms by which they may have evolved.
The notion that proteins are modular, in other words, made up of parts with distinct functions, was completely new when Dr. Pawson published this groundbreaking finding over 20 years ago. The idea that there were certain protein domains that, just by making physical contact with the right protein, were sufficient to send a signal within the cell was revolutionary.  
It''s now clear that a single domain in a protein can change through genetic re-arrangements and mutations. And as a direct result of the work happening by researchers like Dr. Jin and many others in Dr. Pawson''s lab, this understanding has already led to the development of molecularly targeted cancer treatment drugs like Gleevac, Herceptin and Avastin.
Similar to his work in Dr. Pawson’s lab, Dr. Jin also collaborated with researchers from another lab at the Lunenfeld in a recent study that furthers the understanding of the function of a specific protein in kidney cells. The groundbreaking study was published in the leading journal Cell, and was the first of its kind to take a closer look at the effects of a vital signalling protein in the kidney called FLT1. The results of the study have the potential to impact drug therapies and treatment for the more than 30,000 Canadians who suffer from kidney failure.
“Prior to this study, vascular studies have focused on endothelial cells in the capillary lining of tissues and organs. Our study showed that in the kidney, the perivascular supporting cells called podocytes, are also very important in the context of kidney disease as a result of a genetic anomaly that occurs in these podocytes,” explains Dr. Jin.
Kidney podocytes are specialized cells needed for proper urine production. When FLT1 is lacking in podocytes, these specialized cells are unable to maintain their structure, which can lead to proteinuria – a massive amount of critical blood proteins spilling into the urine which ultimately leads to kidney failure. In patients, these diseases are termed ‘nephrotic syndromes’ and are particularly common in children.
In his next career move, Dr. Jin aims to start his own lab where he can continue to further the progress of the studies he’s contributed to. In particular, his hope is to develop new lines of therapeutics for kidney and other vascular diseases based on what has been learned so far regarding the function of the FLT1 protein. 
Dr. Jin, who came to Canada from China and completed his doctoral degree, has been a member of the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute for over 9 years.  
“I am thankful to Dr. Pawson for supporting my research beyond the duration of the fellowship grant,” he says. “I’m very fortunate to be a part of the collaborative community at the Lunenfeld, working with top notch researchers in the best equipped labs available. As researchers, we have the freedom to explore what we feel is interesting. And this is not the norm in all research institutes.”
When asked about his original motivation to pursue the career path of a molecular scientist, Dr. Jin says that he was eager to be equipped with the knowledge and skill for solving real problems concerning human health.
“This year, in particular, has been a really good year for me,” Dr. Jin comments with a smile.

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