Identification and analysis of proteins required for tubulin homeostasis: impact on nervous system disorders and cancer

A cytoskeleton is a central component of all cells, and is made of protein filaments that assemble into networks. These networks allows cells to divide, change shape as needed and perform a multitude of other vital functions. Microtubules (MTs), are essential cytoskeletal components composed of an elementary protein called tubulin. To fulfill its cellular function, the activity and level of tubulin must be maintained optimally by a process known as homeostasis. This process is not well understood, but is known to be particularly important for nervous system function. In fact, disruption of tubulin homeostasis can lead to neurological problems such as Huntington’s disease. Furthermore, because MTs are important in the uncontrolled division of tumour cells, tubulin represents an important target for cancer treatment. To improve our understanding of the fundamental principles guiding tubulin homeostasis, Dr. Melissa Frederic has undertaken research to identify and characterize proteins associated with the function, organization and maintenance of tubulin, using mainly C. elegans, a tiny worm, and mammalian tissue culture cells as model systems. One protein that will be characterized at the molecular and cellular levels, termed HECTD1, has been identified in her lab as a likely factor influencing tubulin homeostasis; importantly, it has also been linked to neural tube defects in a mouse system where the protein was removed. At the same time, Dr. Frederic is doing genetic screens to identify proteins that effect tubulin homeostasis, including one that utilizes the anticancer drug taxol or benzyl isothiocyanate. Together, the characterization of HECTD1 and the discovery and subsequent characterization of additional proteins implicated in tubulin homeostasis, are expected to shed new light on nervous system disorders such as neurodegeneration and neural tube defects, the most common congenital malformation in humans, as well as cancer.