Unlocking the Cell’s Secrets

A desire to understand how our cells work led Dr. Tanmay Lele to an exciting discovery that has the potential to unlock the mysteries of the formation of abnormal tissue structure associated with cancer.

Tanmay Lele, Ph.D., the Charles A. Stokes Professor of Chemical Engineering and Director of the Institute of Cell & Tissue Science and Engineering at the University of Florida, has devoted his career to mechanobiology. Dr. Lele has been with the UF Department of Chemical Engineering since 2006 and continues to make strides in advancing the scientific understanding of how cells work. Lele holds a joint appointment in the Departments of Anatomy and Cell Biology, and affiliate appointments in the J. Crayton Pruitt Family Department of Biomedical Engineering and Department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering.

Current research in the Lele lab is focused on how the cell nucleus is shaped and positioned, and how these functions become abnormal in disease conditions. One of the discoveries from the Lele lab is that nuclei are shaped by mechanical stresses generated internally in cytoskeletal structures. These stresses are transmitted to the nucleus through cytoskeletal connections with nuclear envelope proteins, and many of these proteins are mutated or under-expressed in cancer. Therefore, a major part of his research involves understanding the function of these nuclear envelope proteins, which are referred to as the LINC complex.

“We’re developing new technologies to measure how the nucleus is mechanically coupled with the cytoskeleton, how that coupling changes when you interfere with the LINC complex, and we’re developing methods to apply forces to the nucleus to test what changes occur inside the nucleus,” says Lele.

Lele recognizes that the impact of his research is multi-fold.

“We try to advance scientific understanding of how cells function – basic understanding of what cells do and how they work. In doing so we hope that this scientific knowledge will be valuable to people in ways that I can’t even predict now,” says Lele.

One of the most tangible benefits is that this research is training future scientists and research scientists.

“We provide these bright, well-educated, technically trained minds who then go on to work on problems of direct relevance to society. A lot of my research I use to teach undergraduates and graduate level classes,” said Lele. “This catches their imagination and many become interested in scientific research. Also, undergraduates are exposed to a whole world of research whether or not they end up in this area.”

Lele is encouraged by making significant scientific discoveries and learning how things work.

“The process of science is not painless. Nature is not one to give up its secrets so easily. You have to fight and struggle and it can be frustrating. It takes a long time and many blind turns and alleys. Finally, after all that struggle you hold in your hand knowledge that nobody has had before you and that’s what keeps me motivated,” says Lele.

He is most proud of the students that come into his lab without prior biological experience. He notes that by the time of their defense and graduation, they are experts at what they do.

“My students tend to have very diverse committees and are grilled on many technical aspects of very disparate fields. We’re very interdisciplinary in this way. They’re able to get to that level and defend themselves in front of such diverse field experts, that’s what I’m proud of,” says Lele.

Lele conducted postdoctoral research in Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School/Children’s Hospital. He earned his doctorate in Chemical Engineering at Purdue University, and his bachelors in Chemical Engineering from the University Department of Chemical Technology (UDCT), Bombay, now known as the Institute for Chemical Technology (ICT). He hopes that people understand that chemical engineers have a very broad role to play in academia and industry.

“The way we are trained in molecular sciences, and physical sciences makes us so versatile,” says Lele.

Interacting with students and conducting research is what makes Lele excited to come to work every day.

“The great joy of being in my lab is that my students are able to produce movies on microscopes, where they say, “look at what the cell’s doing!” We do all kinds of things to cells. One of my students recently prepared an obstacle course for cells to crawl through. We have a very specific hypothesis we’re trying to test, but just watching the movie… your jaw drops. Live cell imaging is a lot of fun,” says Lele.