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Cell Adhesion & Extracellular Matrix Biology

Erkki Ruoslahti

The Burnham Institute, US

Erkki Ruoslahti earned his M.D. and Ph.D. from the University of Helsinki in Finland in 1967. After postdoctoral training at the California Institute of Technology, he held various academic appointments with the University of Helsinki and the University of Turku in Finland and City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, California. He joined The Burnham Institute in 1979 and served as its President  from 1989-2002. His honors include elected membership to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the European Molecular Biology Organization. He is the recipient of the G.H.A. Clowes Award, Robert J. and Claire Pasarow Foundation Award, Jacobaeus International Prize, The Jubilee Award given by the British Biomedical Society, is an Honorary Doctor of Medicine from the University of Lund, a Nobel Fellow at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, and a Knight of the Order of the White Rose of Finland.

Research Focus
The underlying theme of Dr. Ruoslahti’s work is metastasis, the process of cancer spread to distant sites in the body. Cancer is so lethal because, unlike normal cells, cancer cells can migrate to distant sites where they do not belong and multiply there. The metastatic growths that result are what often makes cancer incurable. Normal cells attach to an insoluble protein scaffold, extracellular matrix, that fills the spaces in between cells. Should they detach, they will promptly die in a suicide-like process. One of the fundamental characteristics of cancer cells is that they can detach and stay alive to eventually metastasize. The chemistry of the cell-extracellular matrix interactions worked out by this laboratory has lead to a major drug development effort. Two drugs that prevent blood clotting by this mechanism are already in the clinic, and others are being developed, including an anti-cancer drug. Current work focuses on the signals that cells receive from attachment.

The vasculature, consisting of blood vessels and lymphatic vessels, is the conduit of distant metastasis. Moreover, a tumor needs blood vessels to be able to grow. The Ruoslahti lab discovers and exploits differences that exist between vessels in tumors and normal tissues. They are now able to selectively target drugs to tumor blood vessels in mice and thereby suppress the growth of a tumor. Quite recently, they have found a way to selectively target the lymphatic vessels in tumors. They hope that selectively destroying these blood and lymphatic vessels will curtail metastasis.

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