Joel Pomerantz of Biological Chemistry
on the machinery that helps immune cells make decisions:
Your lab focuses mostly on basic science research. Why do you think it’s important that people still do basic science research?
POMERANTZ: The track record of 20th century science suggests that the most important discoveries that lead to helping people happen serendipitously because inquisitive scientists are doing experiments just for the sake of finding new knowledge, not because they’re specifically designing something to save people. Everything you do in science is something for someone else to build on and eventually someone will be able to develop a new therapeutic approach to use this knowledge in the clinic.
What does your lab study?
POMERANTZ: The white blood cells, specifically B and T cells, detect foreign substances and respond to infections by growing, dividing and getting other cells in the immune system ready for battle. We are interested in the machinery of these cells that allows them to recognize an invader and respond appropriately so we can understand how the immune system works. We are focused on a component of the machinery, CARD11, which is a protein that is critical for the B and T cell response to infections.
Why is this important?
POMERANTZ: Because when this machinery of the B or T cell gets disrupted or accrues unwanted genetic changes, then you get disease. Problems in the B and T cell machinery can lead to autoimmunity if the cell mistakes part of your own body for an infection and attacks it, or immunodeficiency if the cell doesn’t function as well as it should in the face of infection. Also, defects in the machinery can cause the uncontrolled growth of B and T cells, which can lead to cancers like leukemia or lymphoma.
Are there known DNA changes in the CARD11 gene that cause disease?
POMERANTZ: We know of several CARD11 DNA changes that are found in tumors. They seem to be DNA changes that happen once the tumor is already formed that help the tumor grow faster. What is interesting, though, is that even if a cancer was caused by a different DNA change, shutting down the activity of CARD11 seems to kill tumor cells and be a plausible treatment for certain cancers.
How did you become interested in CARD11?
POMERANTZ: As a post-doc in David Baltimore’s lab at Cal Tech, I studied how the immune system is regulated -- how cells behave in the face of infection. It was clear that to understand this better, we needed the parts list because all the machinery that controls this process is not completely known. I developed a really simple way to find new components of the machinery and that led to the discovery of CARD11, which I continued to study when I started my lab at Hopkins.
--Interviewed by Vanessa McMains