Scientific researchers at Shriners Hospitals for Children ─ Northern California are determined to find ways to improve treatment for children with spina bifida and other birth disorders. They also hope children paralyzed by a devastating spinal cord injury may one day walk again. Andrew Hamilton, Ph.D., is one of those scientists.
As a postdoctoral fellow in the Institute of Pediatric Regenerative Medicine (IPRM) at the Northern California Shriners Hospital, Dr. Hamilton works in the lab of principal investigator Laura Borodinsky, Ph.D., where investigations focus on spinal cord development and regeneration.
Through his scientific studies, Dr. Hamilton hopes to discover the complex interactions that will help answer a basic question: How does signaling between cells regulate spinal cord repair? He thinks the answer may be found in how tadpoles have the ability to “regrow” their tails.
We are delighted to introduce you to Dr. Hamilton as he answers questions regarding his research and his desire to make a positive difference in the lives of others.
Can you tell us why tadpoles are important to your studies? Specifically, I am studying signaling between cells in tadpoles of the African clawed frog (Xenopus Laevis). These tadpoles have an impressive natural ability to regenerate a wide range of whole tissues after injury, which makes them an ideal model for examining neural repair and regeneration. I feel that if we characterize the cellular “tricks” these tadpoles use to excel at spinal cord regeneration and compare it to the cellular activity in mammals, we can find ways to improve treatments for spinal cord injury or birth defects.
What sort of cell signals do you study? My research focuses on the Hedgehog signaling pathway, which plays an important role in the early development of the nervous system. Hedgehog is a small protein that cells secrete to communicate with other cells and instruct them on whether to grow or to mature by becoming, for instance, neurons or muscle fibers. This gene was blessed with the name Hedgehog because the fruit fly researchers who discovered it in the late 1980s noticed that when the gene is damaged, the fruit fly larvae are covered with little spikes like a hedgehog. We actually got lucky there; other genes these guys named include Cleopatra, Dachshund and Swiss cheese.
We know that if part of a tadpole’s tail is cut off, all the tissues in the tail will regenerate beautifully. The secret to how it grows back rests in what scientists call the Hedgehog signaling pathway, the changes that occur within a cell once it has contact with the Hedgehog protein. Using genetic tools to monitor and control Hedgehog signaling in specific tissues of the tadpole tail as it grows back, allows me to see how different tissues respond to Hedgehog signaling and gives me insight as to how we can use manipulate this pathway to improve regeneration.
Understanding these complex cellular processes is a vital step in our ongoing efforts to discover new therapies that may promote spinal cord regeneration. For example, while we know manipulating Hedgehog has helped improve recovery from injury to the nervous system, we also know that runaway Hedgehog signaling is a hallmark of some types of cancer. Before we can help human patients, we have to have a firm grasp on everything Hedgehog is doing.
When did you begin working with the research team at the Northern California Shriners Hospital? I began working in Dr. Laura Borodinsky’s lab in November 2013, shortly after I completed my Ph.D. in molecular biology at UC Davis. Her lab is a fantastic group of people, complete with all the facilities and colleagues I could ask for to push my research forward.
What motivated you to become a scientist? I think the profession was a part of me before I know what the term “genetic predisposition” meant. I still remember my first set of books being an old encyclopedia set, and my favorite one was a big black volume entitled “The Universe.” I recall staying up late at night reading about the origins of life, the universe and everything. I was the kid always asking how things worked, and why they were this way and not another.
If I had to pick a moment, I guess my love for science really hit overdrive in high school, when something about the DNA double helix captured my attention. It felt so inherently beautiful that one, simple, elegant molecule was the key to all life on Earth. After that, it was all over as I immersed myself in studying, reading and experimenting . . . you get the idea.
Can you tell us what makes your job so rewarding? I get to come to work every day to do what I’ve enjoyed doing my entire life ─ investigating what makes living things tick.As if that weren’t enough, I get to work on a project that stands a good chance of directly helping hundreds of thousands of people. Yes, science is laborious and requires great patience and persistence, but the daily act of conducting science is fun.
How would you describe a good day at work? On my best days, I get to bike to work, satisfying my quota for exercise and sunshine. Then, I do a decent mix of work at my lab bench or on my computer. Most of all, I like the variety of being a postdoc. As a postdoc I have the luxury of being able to go to Dr. Borodinsky for advice and assistance while engaged in self-guided research. It’s immensely satisfying work.
What would you like the community to know about your work at Shriners Hospitals for Children ─ Northern California? First, I would like to encourage people to come by and tour the hospital so they can see a spectacular pediatric medical center and learn more about the Shriners Hospital and its mission. We love having visitors so we can share what drives us and excites us, as well as our newest accomplishments.
On a more personal note, the simple truth is most professional nerds like me do what we do for two reasons: we love to do it, and we want to help people. We love to share our work with the public, to help ensure our discoveries go to improving people’s lives.