The National Institutes of Health has a new mission for Associate Professor Yoichi Kato: Find out more about cilia, the hair-like structures that protrude from nearly every cell in the human body. Learn more about cilia’s mysterious “transition zone,” where yet-unidentified genes play yet-unspecified roles in causing developmental defects known as ciliopathies.
Examples of ciliopathies are polycystic kidney disease, diabetes, obesity and various eye problems — conditions that affect countless people.
Researchers know that cells in the body use pathways to transmit signals to other cells. Whether activating them or repressing them, they control those cells. Kato, in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, has been focusing on what’s known as the TGF-beta signaling pathway.
Last year, his lab was the first to report that TGF-beta controls the formation of cilia. Now, to aid that work, the NIH has awarded him a grant of nearly $365,000.
“We know TGF-beta activation is necessary to form normal cilia. Without TGF-beta, they have short cilia,” said Kato, who joined the College of Medicine faculty in 2003. “But why is that? We’re going to try to find out.”
Cilia come in two types. Primary cilia are sort of like antennas. They receive signals, perhaps from a protein or some kind of physical stimulation. Then there are motile cilia, which engage in a rhythmic waving or beating motion that creates a current. The primary cilia sense the current and respond accordingly. But that won’t happen if there are defects in the pathway or in the cilia, whether because of structure or function. The embryo won’t develop appropriately.
Kato is a native of Japan, where he earned his medical degree in 1992 from Nagoya City University Medical School. He earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry there and moved to the U.S. in 1997 to pursue a research fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School.
So far, his TGF-beta research involves frogs, which are similar to humans in development. Eventually, he said, he looks forward to results that will benefit people afflicted by ciliopathies. In the meantime, his goal is basic knowledge.
“When I became a doctor, I said to myself: I can treat one patient, two patients, three patients — how many patients can I treat in my life?” he said. “But if I do research and find some basic things, I can maybe help a million people.
“It is so exciting to find what nobody else knows, and to know that’s going to help people. That is a motivation for me.”