September 28, 2007

Case Western Reserve University biologist starts studies on facial skin development

Radhika Atit sets out to discover how craniofacial dermis develops in mouse embryos

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Consumers spend billions of dollars on cosmetics to enhance their facial features, but if a face is injured, burned, scarred or marred by disease, little can be done to restore full function-from sensation to growing new hair.

Radhika Atit, Assistant Professor of Biology from the College of Arts and Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, who has secondary appointments in the departments of Genetics and Dermatology in the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, and hopes to eventually change that with findings from a new project funded by a RO1 research grant from the National Institutes of Health. She has begun a five-year, $1.6 million study to understand how multi-potential cells become dermal cells, specifically those that develop into the craniofacial skin. Atit said she feels particularly fortunate to receive this RO1 grant on her first application.

Below the skin's outer epidermal layer is the dermis, comprised of dermal cells. These cells allow induce and support structures of the skin to sense temperatures, light and pressure; grow hair; sweat; and produce oils. Current skin transplants that are used in cosmetic surgeries produce "living band-aids" that cover the body but lack the full function of skin, according to Atit.

The craniofacial dermis develops from the same precursor that gives rise to bone, cartilage, pigment cells and sensory neurons of the face. Atit and her research group will use genetic techniques to tag precursor cells and follow them during embryonic development as they progress from multi-potential cells into dermal cells. The team also can selectively eliminate the function of single genes in the multi-potential cell to identify the signal(s) that instruct the progenitor cells to become dermal cells.

"How dermal cells of the face develop is like a blank slate. It is largely unknown," said Atit. She is a developmental biologist and uses genetic tools to understand skin development in the mouse embryo.

Eventually, Atit said she anticipates her basic science research will lead to living engineered tissue where an individual's multi-potential cells can be grown into dermal cells that may be able to replace and repair the injured dermis.

"The goal is to create synthetic functional skin using one's own cells," Atit said. "The problem so far in skin regeneration is that they don't have competent dermis, and without dermis, they have no functional parts of the skin."

Atit completed her doctorate studies at the University of Cincinnati with Nancy Ratner in skin wound healing and cancer biology. She started her postdoctoral work at Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute with Lee Niswander where she researched skin patterning in chicken and finished it in the Case Western Reserve University's Department of Genetics where she started working on dermal cell identity with Ronald Conlon.

Assisting her on this new project and related projects will be her research team of Thu Tran, a graduate student; John Myers, Research Assistant; and Diana Zuzindlak, Research Associate.

Also working in Atit's lab are four undergraduate research students: Preethi Mani (2008), Jennifer Ohtola (2007), Pooja Sandesara (2009) and Adrie Welsh (2009). According to Atit, the students are contributors to publication quality research projects relating to dermal development.

Posted by: Paula Baughn, September 28, 2007 10:47 AM | News Topics: Faculty, Grants, Research, School of Medicine

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