Dr. Morris awarded 5-year federal grant totaling more than $1.7 million

Dr. Rebecca Morris.

AUSTIN, Minn. – Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012 — A five-year federal grant totaling more than $1.7 million has been awarded for skin cancer research led by Dr. Rebecca Morris, leader of the Stem Cells and Cancer section at The Hormel Institute, University of Minnesota – Mayo Clinic. Morris, whose research uses adult, non-human stem cells, has been working to identify stem cell-regulating genes for 10 years. She now has found a gene that appears to be linked to stem cell numbers and helping to protect against skin tumor development. This gene also might have an immune function in the skin that can fight bacteria and protect against environmental damage. As stem cell research leads to discoveries to improve health, these cells can be obtained through ways – such as from adult tissue stem cells or through bio-engineering – to avoid the ethical issues of how to secure stem cells for treatment.

This new project, funded through 2017, will further her research on that gene and the idea that, through using the gene, stem cells possibly could be used to function as a way to protect the body. The down side of stem cells is that they seem to be targets for cancer development, Morris said.

“This is exciting for us because a gene, whose function is to protect, may do double duty by regulating stem cell activity related to the immune system,” Morris said. “If we can identify this gene, then maybe we could find a way to turn off the stem cells if they’re growing too fast, such as in cancer and other diseases involving too rapid cell growth.”

With the title, “Identification of a Keratinocyte Stem Cell Regulatory Gene in the KSC2 Locus,” the project is funded through the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.

The key is to find the genes that control the number and growth potential of epidermal stem cells, Morris said. Then you could create more stem cells or make them grow faster, for example, to heal an ulcer or the thinning of skin due to aging.

Morris, who joined The Hormel Institute in 2008, focuses her research on stem cells responsible for healing wounds, maintaining normal tissue integrity and cancer. Her lab uses adult stems cells isolated from the skin through a technique Morris developed when she was a post-doc at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

With the grant funds, Morris plans to buy a new centrifuge to use in preparing skin cells for stem cell assays. The hiring process for her section also now is underway for an additional lab technician and new post-doc scientist, who ideally will have a doctorate’s degree in genetics along with experience in gene identification in the laboratory as well as through the use of computational tools, Morris said.

With one of the top scientific publishing records, The Hormel Institute, University of Minnesota – Mayo Clinic is a world-renowned cancer research center conducting research focused on discoveries leading to the prevention and control of cancer. Its scientists conduct research focused on how cancer works and what nontoxic, natural compounds can be used to prevent and control the disease.

The BioScience Triangle growing the collaborative partnership between the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Mayo Clinic-Rochester and The Hormel Institute-Austin is continuing to expand, with plans for a major expansion in 2013 at the Institute to add 15 labs and better space for its International Center of Research Technology.