This figure shows the scales that we work with in the lab

Neil McDonald : Signalling and Structural Biology Laboratory

We study the three-dimensional structure of components controlling the survival, shape and organisation of nerve cells and how they can contribute to the development of cancer.

Nerve cells (neurons) are electrically excitable cells present in the brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves. These highly specialised cells have a unique shape and organisation that allows them to connect to other neurons and use chemical and electrical signals to process and transmit information.

Neurons depend on survival factors (also known as neurotrophic factors) from their environment to help guide their growth, survival and development. 

Our lab uses research tools to visualize what these factors look like and how they communicate with proteins on the outer surface of cells. We also study how growth and survival factors switch on signalling machines inside cells.

Understanding how growth and survival factors convert signals from outside the cell into signals inside the cell means we can learn how to control cell signalling. This is important because losing control over how much cells grow is a feature of cancer. By switching off cancer-causing signals, a cancer tumour can potentially be destroyed.

Our lab uses research techniques collectively referred to as structural biology. These methods include X-ray crystallography, electron microscopy and small angle X-ray scattering. Together they can be used to map the position of atoms in the proteins we study. This gives us a visualization of their three-dimensional structure.

We combine our structural biology research with biochemical and cell-based experiments to show that mechanisms we work out on the lab bench also work in whole living cells.