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Cancer, ciliopathies, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's are some of the many diseases associated with defective cell transport

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14 Mar 13

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150 international researchers specialized in organelles associated with cell transport and mobility and related diseases are brought together in Barcelona by IRB Barcelona and the BBVA Foundation.

“The inside of cells is organized by microtubules, without which cells cannot function”, explains Jens Lüders, researcher at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona). Microtubules are tiny filaments that shrink, lengthen, cluster and bend, depending on cell requirements. They are involved in cell mobility, cell division, intracellular transport, positioning of organelles in the cytoplasm and intra and extra-cellular signalling, among other functions.

Lüders, head of the “Microtubule Organisation” group at IRB Barcelona, is the coordinator, together with Tim Stearns, at the University of Stanford, of the Barcelona Biomed Conference “The microtubule cytoskeleton in development and disease”, an event supported by the BBVA Foundation. The conference brings together 22 international experts from the United States, Canada and Europe. Before an audience of 150 invited scientists, these speakers will address the breakthroughs and challenges in this field of biomedicine, which has implications on many human diseases, and it is of special interest in cancer research. This event will be held from 20 to 22 March at the Institut d’Estudis Catalans, in Barcelona.

About cancer, ciliopathies and neurological disorders
Microtubules are involved in the segregation of chromosomes during cell division, pulling them apart so that each daughter cell receives the correct number. Knowledge about the function of microtubules during mitosis is crucial for human health. For example, interfering with microtubule function prevents the separation of chromosomes and is one way to halt the out-of-control growth seen in cancer cells. “Some of the most efficient drugs against cancer act on microtubules, but also on microtubules in healthy cells. A better understanding of the mechanisms that control microtubules will allow the design of less aggressive and more specific treatments that do not affect healthy cells”, says Lüders. Much of the conference focuses on this function, and cell division and the diverse components involved in this process, with a special emphasis on the division of stem cells and associated pathologies.

Another focus of growing interest for experts in the field are the microtubule-based structures known as cilia. These are cellular appendages that act as receiving antennae and signal transmitters, but they have many other functions. Some cells have hundreds of cilia in the external membrane, which, in a wavy movement, discharge mucus from the lungs, for example. Many hereditary genetic diseases are associated with defects in cilia, known as ciliopathies, such as Joubert Syndrome, a disease affecting brain development, Meckel Syndrome, characterized by developmental defects in various organs, and Polycystic kidney disease. “Cilia, their structure and activities are the focus of intense study nowadays, which is why we are devoting a special session to them at the conference”, explains Lüders.

Recent studies have demonstrated that defective microtubule regulation causes some cases of Parkinson’s disease. Or for example, in Alzheimer’s disease, the Tau protein loses its ability to bind to microtubules and forms abnormal aggregates that lead to microtubule degeneration, thus affecting their transport activity and consequently impairing neuronal function. “Most diseases associated with microtubules are complex because many proteins are involved in the correct functioning of these filaments. The main challenge is now to understand at the molecular level how the microtubule network develops and reshapes. We have identified hundreds of proteins and related components involved in their organization, we must now unveil how they work together, and also improve the techniques and tools that allow us to study these extremely dynamic cell structures in detail”, concludes Lüders.

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About IRB Barcelona

Created in 2005 by the Generalitat de Catalunya (Government of Catalonia) and University of Barcelona, IRB Barcelona is a Severo Ochoa Centre of Excellence, a seal that was awarded in 2011. The institute is devoted to conducting research of excellence in biomedicine and to transferring results to clinical practice, thus improving people’s quality of life, while simultaneously promoting the training of outstanding researchers, technology transfer, and public communication of science. Its 27 laboratories and eight core facilities address basic questions in biology and are orientated to diseases such as cancer, metastasis, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and rare conditions. IRB Barcelona is an international centre that hosts 400 employees and more than 30 nationalities. It is located in the Barcelona Science Park. IRB Barcelona is a CERCA center, and a member of the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology (BIST).