NIGMS Awards 'Glue Grant' to Study How Cells Move

NIGMS Communications Office

Cells move. They do it to help embryos develop, fashioning organs and tissues. White blood cells chase bacteria and viruses, preventing us from getting sick. Cancer cells spread via the blood.

Cell movement is an essential process that underlies health and disease. Yet despite many years of intensive study, a good understanding of the mechanics of this important phenomenon has remained out of biologists' grasp.

In an effort to "glue" together large groups of scientists to tackle such pressing problems confronting biomedical scientists today, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) has provided an $8 million "glue grant" (for the first year of funding) to a consortium of basic scientists who will work to unlock the mysteries of cell movement. NIGMS anticipates spending a projected total of $38 million on the project over the course of 5 years.

"For some research, the intellectual and material resources available to individual laboratories, or even to small groupings of labs, are simply not enough to adequately attack the problem. Glue grants provide an opportunity to marshal the resources needed," said Dr. Marvin Cassman, director of NIGMS.

The "Cell Migration Consortium" project brings together a large group of scientists from leading academic medical centers across the country. Leading the project are two scientists from the University of Virginia School of Medicine, Dr. Alan F. "Rick" Horwitz and Dr. J. Thomas Parsons.

"Understanding the mechanism of how cell migration occurs is critical to our understanding of diseases like cancer, arthritis and osteoporosis, as well as wound repair, embryonic development, and tissue engineering," said Horwitz, professor of cell biology at U.Va. and the project's principal investigator. "For example, most people who have cancer don't die from primary tumors but from tumor spread--that's a migration problem. And a significant number of congenital brain defects are migration problems."

One of the Consortium's goals is to generate new understanding about the basic mechanisms involved in cell migration. A key part of the plan is to generate new and sophisticated imaging strategies to visualize the fundamental signaling pathways that regulate cell migration--technologies that are sorely needed by the scientific community currently investigating cell movement. Another objective of the Consortium is to catalyze the translation of new discoveries in cell migration to the development of novel therapeutic drugs and treatments.

The Consortium will be truly multifaceted--consisting of biologists, chemists, biophysicists, optical physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, geneticists, and engineers. The arrangement should foster a multi-pronged attack on the study of cell migration that will interface with the larger community of cell migration researchers. "The days of the lone investigator are rapidly waning in disciplines like cell biology," said Horwitz. "We have to cooperate rather than compete if we are to answer some of the most complex and challenging scientific questions."

Using state-of-the-art Internet and interactive video technologies, Consortium researchers will share and discuss data as it is collected, Parsons explained. A Consortium Web site ( will make possible the timely sharing of findings, ideas, and information. The Web site will be publicly accessible to scientists everywhere.

NIGMS originally conceived of the large-scale glue grants following consultations with leaders in the scientific community who emphasized the importance of confronting intractable biological problems with the expertise and input of large, multifaceted groups of scientists.

The first glue grant was awarded last year to Dr. Alfred G. Gilman, a pharmacologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, who won the Nobel Prize in 1994 for work on signaling molecules called G proteins.

Joining forces with U.Va. scientists are consortium members from several institutions, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the Burnham Institute; The Scripps Research Institute; Northwestern University; Harvard University; The Johns Hopkins University; Florida State University; the University of California, Davis; the University of Connecticut Health Center; and the University of Illinois.

Please mention support for this work from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a component of the National Institutes of Health that supports basic biomedical research. Please fax clips to 301-402-0224.


For comment on the glue grant program, call the NIGMS Office of Communications and Public Liaison at (301) 496-7301 to arrange an interview with NIGMS director Dr. Marvin Cassman.

For comment on the Cell Migration Consortium, call Marguerite Beck in the U.Va. Health System Media Relations office at 434-924-5679 to arrange an interview with consortium leader Dr. Alan F. "Rick" Horwitz.


More information on the NIGMS glue grant program can be found at /Research/FeaturedPrograms/Collaborative/GlueGrants/.

More information on the Cell Migration Consortium can be found at Link to external Web site.

Writer: Alison Davis, Science Writing Contractor