FOCUSON:Andrea Page-McCaw: Analyzing Enzymes
When Andrea Page-McCaw interviewed last year for a faculty position, she knew that Rensselaer’s Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies was still in the making.
“But the plans were promising. I could see that Bob Palazzo [the center’s director] had a vision of where Rensselaer was going and I trusted in it,” says Page-McCaw, assistant professor in developmental genetics and molecular biology.
Page-McCaw is one of eight new faculty members appointed in Rensselaer’s Biology Department in the past two years. They are helping to expand the university’s research scope in biotechnology with their expertise in cellular, biochemical, and biophysical approaches to the life sciences.
Page-McCaw came to Rensselaer last fall after a six-year research fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, where she conducted seminal research on a group of enzymes called matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), which have been associated with many illnesses, including inflammatory diseases, and have been implicated in all stages of tumor progression in cancer. Although there is evidence that their normal purpose is to help in wound healing and joint lubrication, little is still known about how MMPs work normally in the body.
Major stumbling blocks are that the family of enzymes is large about 22 in humans and mice and they exhibit complex interdependence with one another.
But Page-McCaw has opened a new door to MMP research by studying the fruit fly, which only has two such enzymes. At UC Berkeley, she discovered that each enzyme is critical for fruit fly survival. “If either one is disabled, the fruit fly dies,” she says.
Page-McCaw, who grew up in Belmont, Mass., earned her undergraduate degree in history and science at Harvard. After college, she landed a job in a law firm in Washington, D.C., tracking clean-air legislation for lobbyists.
In 1990, while at the law firm, she took a night class in biochemistry at American University. The following year she accepted an entry-level position as a research technician at Harvard Medical School, where she studied DNA methyltransferase, an enzyme that likely controls gene expression. She next moved on to MIT, where she earned a Ph.D. in biology in 1998.
She first turned to the fruit fly at MIT to conduct research in cell division. For her postdoctoral research, she wanted to do something that would have immediate medical significance. To do so, she assumed she would have to switch from fruit flies to mice. However, as she attended a variety of cancer seminars, she found time and again the seminal insight in each research program came from genetic work in fruit flies.
“I realized I didn’t have to give up on the tools I worked with, but apply the tools to a new problem,” she says.
A seminar in Boston first exposed her to MMP research, but the research program was one of the few that didn’t highlight insights from fruit flies because the enzymes were only studied in vertebrates.
“I realized that if they could see how MMPs worked in flies, they would have much clearer hypotheses to test in vertebrates,” Page-McCaw says.
Today at Rensselaer, she is focusing on which proteins and cells rely on the enzymes in fruit flies. “If we can better understand MMPs and distinguish differences between normal and pathological function in each one, then we perhaps can improve inhibitors for new cancer drugs,” Page-McCaw says.
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