OTC News Archive

UT researcher plumbs cellular interactions that give rise to cancer

Lauren Ehrlich focuses on T cells that can go haywire, causing childhood leukemia and lymphoma

Ralph K.M. Haurwitz, Austin American-Statesman
October 3, 2010

When Lauren Ehrlich graduated from Stanford University’s School of Medicine with a Ph.D. in immunology in 2002, she paraphrased a fortune cookie message in her remarks to fellow graduates: “We delight in doing what others proclaim cannot be done.”

Ehrlich went on to perform research that showed how a certain type of stem cell in bone marrow spawns other cells that play an important role in the immune system.

Now, having been recruited by The University of Texas to become an assistant professor of molecular genetics and microbiology this fall, Ehrlich is beginning a new phase of her research, focusing on why some of the immune system cells, called T cells, become cancerous.

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, which awarded $2 million to underwrite equipment purchases and other startup costs for Ehrlich’s laboratory, has high hopes for her efforts to plumb the cellular and molecular interactions that contribute to leukemia and lymphoma, among the most common childhood malignancies.

“Ultimately,” the institute says on its website, “these discoveries should enable the development of targeted, low-toxicity therapeutics to significantly improve … treatment and disease outcomes.”

Ehrlich echoed that view.

“My fond hope would be that we find the molecular interactions that are really critical for T cell lymphoma development, and then we can find ways to start blocking those interactions,” she said.

Ehrlich and the team of graduate students and other researchers she is assembling will use T cells from mice for their studies. T cells, which are a type of white blood cell, develop in the thymus, a small organ in the chest beneath the breastbone.

In mice and humans alike, T cells orchestrate an important part of the immune system’s infection-fighting response to bacteria, viruses, and other disease-causing organisms. They are also responsible for immunologic memory, the body’s capacity to resist recurrent infections.

Immature T cells, called thymocytes, motor around in certain ways and in certain areas within the thymus as they interact with other cells and develop. Ehrlich is adept at using sophisticated technology to observe this cellular ballet, said Phil Tucker, a professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at UT.

One important tool is a combined microscope and laser called a two-photon microscopy system. The device, costing nearly $600,000, will allow Ehrlich and her team to peer at living T cells within thymic tissue.

Ehrlich, who is married with two young daughters, grew up in Austin before leaving for studies at Yale, Stanford, and the University of California, San Francisco. She said she’s thrilled to be at UT.

Her colleagues feel the same way.

Said Robert Krug, professor and chairman of molecular genetics and microbiology: “We were looking for an immunologist who’s a real star, and we got one.”