Cell talk

Cell talk

By understanding how cells communicate, world-renowned researcher Tony Pawson at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital leads the battle against cancer and heart disease
September 25, 2007
Scientists, by definition, are explorers. Their job, like those of seafaring mapmakers of days past, is to discover things unknown. Sometimes, they uncover something so incredible that it changes the way people see the world.

Such is the case for Tony Pawson. When he first discovered his passion for biochemistry as a schoolboy in England, he had no inkling that he would become one of the world’s history-making pathfinders. “ I was very inspired by the thought that science could explain and help me understand living things,” says Pawson. “ Discovering the secrets of the body’s mysterious workings is, and always has been, an exciting adventure for me.”

Now principal investigator at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, Pawson has changed our fundamental understanding of the cell, and how it communicates. As most diseases result from aberrations in cellular communications, better insight into such behaviour will help researchers understand and treat these illnesses.

Enthralled by the idea that the body could be understood at such a basic level, Pawson became determined to answer the enigmatic questions concerning the inner workings of the cell: What are its building blocks? How do cells in the body communicate with each other? What happens when this communication breaks down?

“The cell is the basic unit of life on the planet,” says Pawson, who has dedicated 25 years of his life to researching the subject. “Our bodies are nothing more than composites of these basic units of life, yet we knew so very little about how cells communicate.”

In 1986, Pawson made history by discovering a fundamental organizing principle of how human cells communicate with each other. He found that modular, Lego-like arrangements of proteins are responsible for a cell’s signal transduction, the process by which signals from outside a cell are translated into specific effects within the cell. Many of the diseases that we suffer from—like cancer, heart disease, and many mental disorders—essentially result from breakdowns in signal transduction through the specific protein interactions that Pawson identified.

For example, a classic signaling breakdown occurs with cancer. The cells react to an aberrant signal, and grow out of control. The signaling proteins associated with human cancers alter so frequently that they become continuously active, despite there being no signal for them to do so.

“Dr. Pawson's research has transformed how we think about diseases like cancer and has led to broad applications in areas as diverse as cancer research and brain science,” says Alan Bernstein, President of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. “ His research, which was originally viewed as quite contrary to the prevailing wisdom, is now central to our thinking about how the human body works.”

Before Pawson’s pioneering work on signal transduction, it was generally not accepted that proteins could interact in such specific ways. “It was kind of like looking at a box of jumbled jigsaw puzzle pieces,” he explains. “We knew what the end result of the communication looked like, but we had no idea how all the pieces came together to form that picture.”

By demonstrating the importance of recurring structures in proteins, Pawson has uncovered how cells receive and translate information from their environment. His groundbreaking research has deeply influenced every aspect of biomedical research, including neurobiology, immunology, and cancer research. The work now being conducted by Pawson and his colleagues around the world has led to a new generation of anti-cancer drugs. These are the first generation of drugs targeted at what is specifically wrong in cancerous cells, rather than generally targeting an active region of abnormal cells.

“Our advances are allowing researchers to design cancer drugs that will be more effective and cause fewer side effects for those taking them,” says Pawson. “ When you see these drugs alleviating cancers in people because of work you did, well, that is simply one of the most remarkable feelings in the world.”

Pawson believes that the big thrust over the next decade will be to describe, in very precise terms, how life works holistically. “ The scientific community has achieved an amazing feat over the last five to ten years in generating an exhaustive inventory of parts in the human cell,” he says. “ We are now going to begin seeing tremendous progress in understanding how all of the parts work together in a complex system like the human body.”

Pawson is quick to stress, however, that biochemistry and medical research are still in their infancy. “ It was only five years ago that we learned the sequence of the human genome,” he points out. “ People think that we must be approaching the end of our journey to understand the human body. In reality, we have only taken our first few steps.”

Learn More

Find out more about the Pawson Lab and its world-class researchers.

Read about Pawson’s many distinguished accolades.

Also read an essay about cell signaling by Dr. Pawson.