Channeling a passion for pannexin research

Silvia Penuela, PhD

Silvia Penuela, PhD, has devoted her research to the study of pannexin channels and their role in diseases such as melanoma. The assistant professor brings her expertise to the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology where she is collaborating on translational projects with other scientists at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.

Penuela sat down with us to discuss her journey from Colombia to Canada, her love of travel and salsa dancing, and the importance of the research she is working on.

What is your education background?
I completed a BSc in Microbiology from the University of Los Andes in Bogota, Colombia, where I was born and raised. I then moved to the United States for graduate school and received my PhD in Plant Pathology/Molecular Genetics from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, where I also completed my first postdoctoral fellowship.

What brought you to work at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry?
I relocated to Canada because my husband, Laszlo Gyenis, who is also a scientist at Western University, got a fellowship to work at government laboratories in London, Ontario. After staying home for a couple of years with my two sons, I had the opportunity to do a postdoctoral fellowship with Dale Laird, PhD, who introduced me to the field of cell-to-cell communication, gap junctions and large-pore channels. In July 2014, I joined the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology as a tenure-track assistant professor.

What does your research entail?
My research work focuses on the pannexin channels. Panx1, Panx2 and Panx3 are a family of glycoproteins that oligomerize to form large pore single membrane channels at the surface of mammalian cells. Their main function is the passage of ions and metabolites for cellular communication. We not only study their function in the early development of many organs, but have also found that their dysregulated expression in adult tissues can be detrimental, as is the case in melanoma, stroke, ischemia and many other diseases.

What is the potential impact of this research?
This novel family of channel-forming proteins is ubiquitously expressed in many tissues and cell types, and is important in many physiological and patho-physiological processes. We have found that Panx1 is highly expressed in malignant melanoma, and that knocking down this expression or blocking the channels with specific pannexin blockers can revert the cancer cells to a more normal phenotype. This improves the cancer properties of the melanomas, reducing tumour formation and metastasis. We are exploring the role of pannexins in cancer and their potential use as new targets for therapeutic intervention.

What is the biggest challenge you face with your work?
Pannexins were discovered in 2000 with the release of the human genome project data. Although the field is new and full of opportunities for discovery, the biggest challenge that we face is that our understanding of the mechanisms that regulate these channels is still very limited.

Do you have any specific long-term career or research goals?
I would like to expand our research program to other cancer types where we also see that pannexin channels are dysregulated or mutated. We envision many translational projects where we will continue to work in synergy with other scientists here at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, as well as our clinical collaborators at London Health Sciences Centre. 

What do you enjoy doing when you're not working?
I really like to travel to interesting places either for work or pleasure. I love to spend time reading, watching movies and enjoying outdoor activities with my family. I also like to run, bike and go salsa dancing with my husband.