And so it begins…

Hi!  I’m Conro Sugden (aka Conor), and I’ll start my PhD in the Hamill Lab in October investigating  the mechanisms through which age and disease associated alveolar epithelial matrix changes drive development and progression of pulmonary fibrosis. This isn’t my first time being a part of the Hamill Lab; Dr. Hamill was my supervisor for 2 x 12 week projects during my MRes.

I studied my undergraduate degree in Biochemistry here in Liverpool, taking the chance to complete a sandwich placement at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain (see below). Here I got my first taste of what it was like to be a research student, where I was part of a group developing novel plasmids to analyse Leishmania parasites.

Three Firsts

Three firsts: (Left to right) The first picture I took in Pamplona; My first conference poster; The first image I captured of Leishmania major parasites expressing our pXG-mCherry plasmid (kinetoplasts appear blue after staining with DAPI).

Following my undergraduate degree, I completed an MRes in Clinical Sciences, completing 3 x 12-week projects (2 of these projects, here and here, were supervised by Dr. Hamill!) in the Institute of Ageing and Chronic Disease, and this is where I fell in love with matrix biology. My work in the Hamill Lab so far has involved (with the help of Lee Troughton) using minigene constructs to investigate intron retention with alternative polyadenylation (IRPA) in the LAMA3, and then following up this research testing ways we can manipulate this ratio. The data from these projects has been exciting and encouraging, and I’m glad that I get to carry on being a part of this.

During my time in the Hamill Lab I’ve attended my first Burns night, an awesome ‘Assembly, Dynamics and Organisation of Filaments and Cellular Responses’ workshop at Durham University, and I’ve helped with the ‘Sunscreen Challenge’ at Meet the Scientists and other outreach events.

Time in the Hamill Lab

From my time in the Hamill Lab so far: (Left to right) Project 2 presentation; project 3 poster; Sunscreen Challenge preparation.

I’m in the process of becoming a STEM ambassador, and I’m planning to bring the ‘Sunscreen Challenge’ to my old high school so that I can talk to the students about what it means to be a research student. Alongside my PhD research I’ll continue with the outreach activities, and I’ve also enrolled onto a Spanish language course (can’t let myself forget everything I learned when I was over there – I will be fluent one day!). Recently I wrote for The Biochemist blog about the link between inflammation and fibrosis, you can find that here.

Going forward, I couldn’t be happier to begin my PhD in the Hamill Lab. The atmosphere is great, as are the lab members. The research currently being carried out is extremely exciting, and I can’t wait to get stuck in and make my contribution to the field.

Thanks for reading,

Conro 

 

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You can see a lot by looking – TIRF

Time for a new series. “You can see a lot by looking” basicaly cool images from our research + a little explanation. Microscopy in its various forms has always been one of my favourite things to do, especially when trying out new modalities that open up opportunities to ask new/deeper questions, so I figured we might as well show off some of our pretty images.

#1 in the series is from today; Lee and I used the new Total Internal Reflection Fluorescence (TIRF) microscope at the University of Liverpool’s Centre for cell imaging. This was the first time we have used this microscope and these are just a couple of a set of really nice images, acquired thanks to the expert help of Dave Mason (@dn_mason).


Why is it cool? Well, TIRF is pretty awesome. Basically, whereas normal microscopy involves illuminating the sample directly and then collecting either the transmitted light or the reflected light depending what you are looking for, TIRF involves illuminating the sample at a shallow angle and collecting the light that is internally reflected  (the same principle that fibre optics work by). The practical upshot of this is that when you image at the critical angle, you effectively limit the illumination to near the cell substrate boundary, the bottom ~75nm (1/750,000 of a mm!). You can see the difference this makes in the images below; left = TIRF, right = conventional imaging. Without the TIRF it is much harder to see the fine organisation of the protein at the bottom of the cell.

How are we using it? Well in the magenta and green image, we have imaged live corneal epithelial cells where we have induced expression of the LaNt alpha31 protein with a green fluorescent tag and laminin beta3 with a mCherry tag (shown in magenta) and while the whole cell expresses these proteins, we have limited what we are looking at to just the point where the cell is touching the glass. So here, where we see codistribution of signal i.e white, it’s showing the LaNt and the laminin are close together at the bottom of the cell. The green only signal, e.g. on the left middle, is where there is lant but limited laminin or vice versa for the magenta. In the image below, I have split one of our other images into its component parts (left=LaNt, right=laminin), in this cell there is a much closer match up in the patterns of the two proteins. Proximity alone doesn’t mean interaction but these data add to the other pieces of the story that we are building about how these two proteins influence each other. FYI the scale bar in the image below is 10 micrometers, 1/100th of a mm, you are looking at just a small part of one cell)

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This ‘scope itself pretty amazing, not only can you do TIRF but also Atomic force microscopy at the same time. Looking forward to the next set of experiments…

Valentina en route to viva!!!

Hello readers!

It’s Valentina here, the first PhD student to have joined the Hamill’s lab. I am writing my first article on a very special day…on my way to Dundee to defend my thesis! It’s been a really cool adventure, full of incredible discoveries. 

When I have started, the only available data on LaNts were related to the skin; after three years and many exciting experiments we now know the effects of LaNt a31 in the cornea…which may seem only a little organ of the body, but how amazing is it to be able to see the world?! We have loads of beautiful videos of live laminin’s deposition from corneal epithelial cells and we have established a LaNt a31 overexpression animal model, the first one ever! 

Working in this lab has been fantastic and hopefully today I will be able to transmit my excitement to the examiners 🙂 If my work could open at least one more door to future projects and ideas, then I’ll be doubly proud. 

Going on, the Hamill lab, laminins and LaNts are waiting to be completely undercovered 🙂  much more to follow on this exciting topic…

Soon to be (hopefully) Dr. Vale 

They grow up so fast – NWCR symposium

Today was the Northwest Cancer Research annual symposium held in the stunning, Harry Potter-esque, Victoria Gallery on the IMG_20130714_180621
University of Liverpool campus.

Lots of excellent, inspiring talks including two of my long-term favourites; actin remodelling and RhoGTPases, and integrin signalling. The notebook is full of the next set of experiments and grant ideas! (Thanks Mark)

There was also a thoroughly impressive poster session, displaying the diverse, excellent cancer research work going on in Liverpool, Bangor and Lancaster.

Included in that  poster session, Lee Troughton and Valentina Barrera

C-fSHW1XoAI6tn2.jpg-largepresented our new splice regulation story in LAMA3 that is beginning to really take off. Unfortunately, I missed the opportunity to grab a photo with Vale so its just Lee on this edition of the obligatory “they grow up so fast”.

Lee moaned extensively about his quads hurting while squatting down to take this picture so I made him pose for 10 more, saying it was out of focus…

I also captured his response to finding out about the unnecessary extras. Totally worth it

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Mini (or squatting) Lee

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They grow up so fast – MRes Spring 2017

April time again and the end of another block of MRes Clinical Sciences projects. This time the Hamill lab hosted three students; Kareem Hassanin, Conro Conro Sugden and Tobi Oyewole. Today the boys had their presentations/poster session.

First up; Conro told his story of developing our new minigene construct to investigate LaNt regulation and testing a few mutant versions of it to prove it works. Conor, with Lee Troughton’s help, did some excellent work; generating flo2017-04-13 15.38.50w cytometry,
RT-PCR, western blotting and fluorescence microscopy images that demonstrate that our new system is effective for studying intron retention and alternative polyadenylation and showing that the exon 9 splice site has a big role to play in determining splicing efficiency. His data has gone straight into a grant application and should form the starting point for the next stage of the LaNt project.

Next, Tobi under 20170413_120630the joint supervision of myself and Colin Willoughby and working alongside Fight For Sight student Thanos, worked on determining the optimal delivery mechanism and conditions for delivering small RNA molecules into corneal epithelial cells. This work is critical first step for the the next stage of Thanos’ PhD studies and, although Tobi was frustrated at times, makes a big difference to the lab. Optimisation is the biggest part of all experiments, without these steps we wouldn’t be able to ask the big questions.

Finally, Kareem working alongside Dr Valentina Barrera and using samples kindly provided by Prof Geor20170413_141809ge Bou Gharios, optimised our new rabbit anti-mouse LaNt antibody staining protocol and then did the first staining of embryos and various tissues in the adult. These are really short projects and filled with frustration as just at the very end, Kareem finally had conditions nailed down to get super clean, specific, staining that has opened up a whole range of new options and research questions. One thousand emails bounced back and forward yesterday as he tried to identify all the structures that were and were not stained. Although super cool, really this is just the beginning; knowing where the protein is automatically generates the question of what it is doing in that location as we predict that LaNt function is context specific, so these data too will lay the groundwork for the next grant(s) and next paper.

All in all, a really productive 3 months. Looking forward to the next block…

 

The wall of LaNt research

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Just back from another conference and Lee has added his recent poster to our growing collection. A quick rearrange and we have the wall of LaNt research!

Yes, we have gone too far, taking over a bunch of the poster boards on our floor but it is so cool seeing the work from the various members of my group coming together into a really big story. I recommend working from left to right as you look at them to get a picture from the gene to the protein to the whole tissue.

It starts at the transcript level with Lee’s poster showing LaNt regulation of laminin expression. Also including images of changing protein expression in squamous cell carcinoma from Valentina Barrera and  Conro’s minigene analysis of critical residues involved in splicing regulation.

Next we move on to some of our cell biology work looking at LaNt a31 in the front of the eye where Vale B demonstrates differential distribution accacross the corneal epithelium and Lee and Valentina Iorio show knockdown and overexpression affecting cell migration/spreading

After that its into the molecular biology, with Vale I using fluorescently tagged LaNts and laminins to study their interplay in corneal epithelial cells in culture and also the effects  LaNt overexpression has on junctional complex assembly and matrix organisation.

In Poster 4 Tobi and Vale B’s work brings us back to whole tissues, this time using limbal explants as a 3D model of corneal wound repair and includes our data demonstrating changes in LaNt distribution as wounds heal.

Finally Umar and Vale B show some quite preliminary work of LaNt roles in angiogenesis and the effect of overexpression/knockdown on HUVEC tube formation.

I will now be sending all new students to study all these posters before starting work in the group. Seems like an easy way to get up to speed!

They grow up so fast – BSID 2017 edition

This week PhD student Lee Troughton and I have been attending the British Society for Investigative Dermatology meeting in exotic Manchester.

Lee presented some of our recent findings in poster form. This is the first time we have rolled out this new story and, so far, the response has been very positive.

Loads of data including contributions from Valentina Barrera and Conro Sugden. If anyone in the IACD was wondering why Lee was frantically running 1000s of qPCRs last week, check out the graphs in the bottom left. Nothing like the impending deadline to give a sense of urgency! However, the findings are really interesting and have opened up some really nice questions.

It’s also cool to be back at the BSID after many years away. I think my first “real” conference presentation was at a BSID in Oxford during my PhD where I presented some of our very preliminary data describing the first identification of the alternative splice isoforms that we now call the LaNts. It’s really cool to be back and to see many of the people I know in the skin field and learn about all the excellent derm research going on in the UK.

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Lee looking chuffed at his bold colour choices

They grow up so fast…. PhD thesis submission edition!

Today the pride levels are extra high. Valentina Iorio submitted her PhD thesis!!!

It’s in


Valentina was the first person to join my lab. I interviewed her whilst still in Chicago and was super impressed with not only her academic ability but also her bubbly personality. I have never looked back. 

It’s been an amazing three and a bit years; loads of impressive data, some incredibly cool live cell imaging videos of LaNts and laminin and even during the tough times, when things weren’t working and when reviewer two was needlesslessy negative, Vale faced it all with a smile. 

The end result is an excellent very readable thesis. She will defend sometime in June but at this time on behalf of myself, Carl Sheridan and George Bou Gharios;

Well done Vale! We’re proud of you

BBSRC Grant Funded!

My first post and its big news! The Biotechnology and Bioscience Research Council have decided to fund my application “Characterisation of LaNt regulation of basement membrane organisation in wound repair and angiogenesis.” Exciting times!

Below is the summary from the proposal. Please feel free to comment with ideas, suggestions, feedback, collaboration ideas etc.

Characterisation of LaNt regulation of basement membrane organisation in wound repair and angiogenesis In this work I propose to study the LaNt family of proteins which were recently identified and which I believe are important for processes such as wound repair, blood vessel growth and the spread of tumours. Through these studies, a deeper understanding of these processes will be obtained and this, in turn, may lead to identification of new treatment approaches for conditions such as chronic or slow-healing ulcers and cancer.   The different tissues of the body are composed of defined combinations of specialised cell types and a mixture of proteins and sugars outside the cells, termed the extracellular matrix (ECM). Some of the cell types reside in and contribute to the production of this ECM, whereas others cover the outer (epithelial) and inner (endothelial) surfaces of regions of ECM as sheets of cells. Directly beneath these cell sheets, as well as surrounding nerves and muscles, there is an organised region of ECM termed basement membrane (BM). BMs provide the anchorage point for cells and are therefore important for stress resistance and structural integrity. In addition, BMs support the different behavioural requirements of a wide range of cell type at different times, including acting as the road upon which the skin cells migrate to close wounds.   A major component of all BMs is the laminin family of proteins. Laminins assemble into cross shaped molecules that associate with one another to form a network. Formation of this network has been shown to involve a small region at the very end of the short arms of the laminin cross, which is termed a LN domain. The importance of this interaction is exemplified by a number of genetic diseases where specific defects in LN domains impact the laminin network and BM organisation resulting in skin blistering, eye defects, kidney failure or muscular dystrophy. However, despite this knowledge, the ways in which laminin networks form, how network organisation changes during different cellular processes and what drives those changes is yet to be fully understood.   This project will focus on the LaNts which have been demonstrated to play a role in cell attachment and migration and which my preliminary data indicate is likely to be through regulating BM formation. Like the laminins, the LaNt (Laminin N-terminus) also contain a LN domain, this suggests that they can interact directly with laminins and modify the ways in which laminin networks are organised. Importantly, there are also tissue specific differences within the laminin family and these differences are likely to mean that the impact of the LaNts is cell type specific. This may also mean that LaNts play different roles during blood vessel growth or wound repair than during normal tissue function.   In order to characterise the roles of LaNts in BM formation and the impact they have on cell behaviour and tissue function, this project will pursue three aims.

  • In Aim 1, I will use proteins in solution to directly assess the ability of LaNts to interact with laminins and other BM proteins and to determine their impact on network formation.
  • In Aim 2, I will use skin and corneal epithelial cells and blood vessel endothelial cells to study the impact of changing LaNt protein levels on cell behaviour. Specifically, we will determine if the BM deposited by cells changes in response to increasing or decreasing LaNt levels and we will assess cell movement speeds, how strongly they attach and how rapidly they divide on the different substrates.
  • In Aim 3, I will use three dimensional models of skin, eye and of blood vessel growth to study LaNt roles in these more complex tissue models.

Together the data obtained from these studies will dramatically expand what is known about LaNts, about laminin network formation, about BM organisation and ultimately about wound repair, blood vessel growth and tumour progression. In the longer term, this may translate into identification of new strategies for therapy development .