Research into how cells communicate provides new insights into human health and disease

Western University's Dale W. Laird, in collaboration with researchers from across the United States, is investigating how communication between cells causes several different conditions – from hereditary hearing loss and cataracts to skin conditions and developmental disorders.

The article will be published in the May edition of Scientific American.

Laird’s research is focused on gap junctions – the channels between cells that allow molecules to travel from one cell to another, facilitating communication between those cells. This communication allows the human body to perform hundreds of functions, from detecting sounds to regulating heartbeats. Twenty-one proteins, called connexins, comprise gap junctions, all with different characteristics. Mutations in the connexin proteins can stop or prevent communication between cells, leading to various conditions.

“Gap junctions are fundamentally important to human health and disease, because there are so many diseases that are associated with them,” said Laird, professor of cell biology at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and Canada Research Chair in Gap Junctions and Disease. “Most people will know someone who has a condition that may be linked to a mutation.” Mutations in the genes that encode gap junctions are known to lead to 14 different types of disorders.

While some of these disorders are rare, a few are common, like hearing loss. Hearing loss is one of the most prevalent genetic diseases in the world and Laird’s team is trying to understand and ultimately find ways to treat patients with disease-causing mutations.

A full understanding of how mutations affect gap junctions could one day lead to targeted treatments that compensate for the disease-causing mutation.

The article was co-authored by Ross Johnson, professor emeritus of genetics, cell biology and development at the University of Minnesota, and Paul Lampe, co-head of the Translational Research Program at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.