Perry Howard

Perry Howard
Associate Professor and Chair
Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology

Research areas: cell signalling, cancer

Listening to cells talk

Thirty years ago when the first genes associated with cancers were discovered, it seemed like cures were just around the corner. Alas, it has proven to be a lot more complicated.

In that early work scientists realized that cancers often arise when something goes wrong with the way cells communicate to each other through chemical signals. One enduring strategy to fight cancer has been to interrupt or correct these signals.

However, early biochemists had no inkling of the scale of the vast network of signalling molecules that travel between cells, binding to receptors on cell surfaces, telling the cells to grow, hibernate, differentiate, migrate or die.

In the last ten years Dr. Perry Howard has witnessed what he describes as "an explosion of information" in this field, known as signal transduction. New signals are found regularly.

Yet Howard still describes the research as being at "the very early stages of the transition from bench to bedside."

The networks are simply so vast, with too many holes in the picture of how signalling pathways intersect. This is where Howard's lab comes in.

Howard is an assistant professor with a joint appointment in both the biochemistry and biology departments at UVic. He came to UVic after completing a PhD at the Hospital for Sick Kids in Toronto and a post doctoral fellowship at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.

His lab is fleshing out the picture of signalling pathways in breast and cervical cells in hopes of finding drugs for cancers.

He specializes in a class of membrane receptors called receptor tyrosine kinases.

He uses tools such as fluorescent microscopy to detect which proteins are binding to these receptors, and then looks to see how the cells behave.

While many researchers focus on blocking signals that encourage cells to grow, Howard is taking a slightly different approach. He is trying to strengthen signals telling cells to die. Known as apoptosis, programmed cell death is a natural phenomena the body uses to regulate itself. If it were understood well enough, Howard reasons, the signals for cell death could be targeted towards cancerous cells. In fact, through genetic recombination, Howard has combined two proteins that does indeed change a signal from growth to death.

He hopes to design a drug with the same effect; the idea is the drug would bring two signalling proteins together, inducing a signal for cell death.

Most recently, his lab has focused on a subgroup of receptor tyrosine kinases called ephrins. Ephrins and their receptors are well-known for their importance in developing embryos. Like most types of signalling molecule, they can be involved in cancers.

Howard's lab is looking at a group of proteins that help A-type ephrins bind to their receptors.

This last line of research is perhaps more removed from a specific cancer therapy than some of Howard's other work.

But the details will undoubtedly prove useful down the line.

The field of signal transduction is just reaching the stage where it is paying off with treatments. About a dozen drugs for various cancers are based on blocking signals to cells. Yet those drugs target pathways are not completely understood, underlining the need for basic research such as Howard's.