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Week of February 11, 2013

LSI researcher Yamashita receives Keck award for stem cell project

Life Sciences Institute researcher Yukiko Yamashita has received a $500,000 award from the W.M. Keck Foundation for a project that explores how stem cells can distinguish between two seemingly identical copies of chromosomes during asymmetric cell division.

Yamashita, a research assistant professor at LSI and an assistant professor of cell and developmental biology at the Medical School, was one of a handful of researchers to win a Keck Foundation award in this round.

As part of its Medical Research Program, the foundation will provide the funding to advance her research project titled, “Uncovering the role of non-random chromosome segregation during asymmetric stem cell division.”

Yamashita’s project is based on her lab’s recent discovery that stem cells can distinguish between two seemingly identical copies of chromosomes during asymmetric cell division, a process that leads to two daughter cells with different fates. This process, in which cells distinguish between two identical copies of chromosomes and distribute them to the daughter cells, is called non-random chromosome segregation.

She says the project pushes the boundaries of stem cell research.

“If we can figure out how cells are dividing this way, the scientific understanding of how the body develops — and how it breaks down with aging and disease — could change,” Yamashita said. “It is very basic science, but it could have wide-ranging implications that could be exploited in therapeutics and drug discovery.”

Her lab has found that only a subset of chromosomes shows non-random segregation and has identified the molecules required for this process. With the support from the Keck Foundation, the lab plans to investigate how cells achieve non-random chromosome segregation, how broadly this process is conserved in evolution and what biological purposes this process serves.

The Yamashita lab investigates mechanisms of asymmetric stem cell division. But stem cells aren’t the only cells capable of asymmetric division. Other cells throughout the body are able to divide into two different types, especially during embryonic development.

Yamashita says the research could provide insights into how cells can generate different types of cells through asymmetric cell division, and shed light on the mechanisms by which the single cell of a fertilized egg becomes an animal made of hundreds of trillions of cells as diverse as skin, neuron, bone, blood and other types.

The Keck Foundation funds distinctive endeavors that are novel in their approach. It encourages projects that are high-risk with the potential for transformative impact. “High-risk” comprises a number of factors, including questions that push the edge of the field, present unconventional approaches to intractable problems or challenge the prevailing paradigm.

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