Research at Rensselaer

Professor studies ECM’s control of cell groups

Research focuses on astrocytes, how ECM can be manipulated to aid in injury recovery

With an increasing emphasis on cellular and molecular research to cure global diseases, a plethora of questions have arisen. For example, we know much of how cells function individually, but how do they function with other cells as a group? How does the physiological location of cells influence their function? Professor of Biology George Plopper is conducting research in an effort to answer questions like these. In particular, his research is focusing on the function of the extracellular matrix. The ECM, composed primarily of proteins, lies outside of cells and, being insoluble, forms the major part of the connective tissue holding cells together. It is responsible for most of the sensory features of cells; without the ECM, communication between cells is virtually impossible. Thus, current research aims to discover how the ECM controls and influences the behavior of a group of cells through its role in cell communication.

As an in vitro reductionist, Plopper studies the most minute part of the cell in relation to the ECM. His research thus far has extended to different parts of the body; namely, he has studied the role of the ECM in breast cancer cells, smooth muscle cells, endothelial cells, stem cells, brain cells, and bone cells. At the present time, his research is focusing on astrocytes, which are cells largely responsible for repair processes in the central nervous system. When an injury occurs in the brain or spinal cord, astrocytes rush to the injured area to aid in cellular repair; this process is called cell migration. However, in their rush to repair the injured tissues, astrocytes form a large blockage—similar to a clot in a blood vessel, but permanent. This astrocyte blockage cuts off neuron interaction in the wounded area even after repair is finished, often leaving the patient of a traumatic central nervous system injury paralyzed. The aim of Plopper’s research is to determine how the ECM can be manipulated to influence the behavior of astrocytes, making them leave the injured area after recovery is completed and thus lessening the volume of the blockage. Hypothetically, this would reduce the chances of post-injury paralysis.

Once the mechanisms of the ECM have been more fully explicated, the matrix can be used to influence cell behavior in other fields as well, possibly making cells more responsive to the researcher’s needs. Thus there is much potential in the scientific and medical world for studies on the role of the ECM, and the research of Plopper has already been proven a significant contribution to this subject.