UCI Professor Spies on Cells to Learn What They Say

Making Waves
April 13, 2021 By Jackie Connor

Though widely considered an impolite social transgression, it turns out eavesdropping on cells – minus the social offense – can now provide more answers.

Maksim Plikus, Ph.D., UC Irvine (UCI) professor of Developmental and Cell Biology in the School of Biological Sciences, in collaboration with Qing Nie, chancellor’s professor of Mathematics and Developmental Cell Biology, has developed a tool called CellChat. Along with their team and some peers, the tool they created is able to analyze cellular communications via signaling molecules. According to Plikus, biological tissues are “noisy places” with cells constantly “chatting” with one another. By using single-cell RNA sequencing technology, which examines genes that each cell expresses to get a better understanding of the cell’s functionality and its environment, the team can decode the signals cells sent to one another.

Man with short brown hair wearing a white lab coat smiling

Maksim Plikus, Ph.D., UCI Professor of Developmental and Cell Biology. Photo courtesy of Maksim Plikus.

Their findings were recently published in Nature Communications and highlight the team’s discovery around cellular communication using CellChat to classify signaling pathways across cells. Plikus says this technology can facilitate detection of abnormal signals in disease and, for his specific research, skin regeneration as it pertains to conditions like poorly healing diabetic wounds and male-pattern baldness.

“CellChat kind of translates a ‘hairball of signaling links’ to an output that we can understand,” said Plikus. “It also ranks signaling network activities and network changes and this makes it easy to quickly narrow down on significant signaling changes and put aside the rest.”

According to Plikus, CellChat can pair down an analysis that may take upwards of a few months down to a few hours, allowing scientists to save time and move on to the next steps in their research.

“With this technology, scientists can have a short list of significant signaling changes to quickly move to the next step – [which is to] functionally validate their importance and, hopefully, identify new therapeutic disease targets,” said Plikus.

Plikus is also a co-founder of Amplifica, a UCI startup that has developed a new way to treat common hair loss by stimulating dormant hairs using signaling molecules used by a special type of pigment-producing cells from common skin growths, hairy moles.
Plikus recently joined the Faculty Innovation Fellows program at UCI Beall Applied Innovation, a program that brings faculty across disciplines together to discover innovative and collaborative opportunities.

“Seeing what else people do [across campus] is exciting. A lot of it is so different from what we are accustomed to in Biology. There’s a lot of innovation at UCI in the device field and also in Arts,” said Plikus. “In Bio Sci, our creative output tends to be via academic publications, but there is a great potential across the school to translate many of our basic science discoveries toward innovations.”

Learn more about research translation at Applied Innovation.

Main Image: Pictured is an image of  a regenerated skin wound in a mouse. The green color represents the keratin gene and the red color represents adipocytes, which is a cell that stores fat. Fat helps remove the appearance of scarring.
Image provided by Maksim Plikus, Ph.D., UCI Professor of Developmental and Cell Biology


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