According to researchers at the University of Bath, UK, published on the 1st September in PLoS Genetics, a new approach to study cells has been discovered that offers a significantly better insight into how the intricate details of cells work. The findings could affect understanding and treatment of many diseases at cell level caused when cells start to function incorrectly, including cancer.

Scientists must have a clear and precise understanding of how active genes interact in a normal healthy cell, in order to fully comprehend how a cell works and how it malfunctions. Dr Robert Kelsh from the University of Bath, who was involved in the study said:

“Traditionally cells have been studied purely through genetic approaches. We took a rather novel approach, combining traditional genetics with mathematical modeling to allow a far more rigorous appraisal of our understanding of how the cell works.”

Because genetic diagrams of cells developed by geneticists very quickly become tremendously complicated and impossible to interpret just by intuition alone, Dr Kelsh integrated a mathematical model in his study of the cell with the help from a colleague of the University’s mathematical sciences department. By taking this approach, he restrained researcher’s intuition about the cell’s genetic architecture, forcing them to strictly examine the true implications of the genetic diagram.

Kelsh explained:

“We used our genetic data to draw an initial diagram and then applied mathematical modeling to it, to assess the mathematical predictions of that diagram. We then used existing and new experimental data to test those predictions; where necessary, we then rethought our understanding of the cell and redrew the diagram. We went through this process three times, creating a more accurate picture of the cell each time.”

The unique technique was created by studying melanocyte (skin) cells, however, according to the researchers, it could easily be adapted by scientists to study other cells in the body and could prove beneficial in creating a much clearer picture of what happens at a cell level when diseases occur.

Precise understanding of the exact changes occurring in melanocyte cells during the onset of diseases, such as melanoma (skin cancer), enables scientists to work towards developing approaches to reverse or prevent these changes as well as to halt progression of the disease.

Dr Kelsh declared in a concluding statement:

“This research is an on-going collaboration between mathematical modeling and biology. We are now looking in more detail at the core of the cell model we have come up with, and are hoping to secure additional funding to extend the research and further develop this combined-approach technique.”

Written by Petra Rattue