The W.M. Keck Foundation, a philanthropic organization which supports scientific research, has awarded UCSB Biology professor Denise Montell with a $1 million grant to further her research on anastasis, a process of cell healing recently discovered by Montell’s lab.

According to Montell, who is the Duggan Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, further study of anastasis could have important implications on human health and medicine. Among other things, the grant will allow the researchers to purchase a custom microscope, which will allow them to study cells without harming them with excessive light.

Montell said anastasis can be enhanced or inhibited depending on the situation, and that more research could uncover the control for this process.

“A postdoctoral fellow in my lab discovered that cells can unexpectedly recover from the brink of death … Cancer cells may use this mechanism to escape chemo- or radiation therapy-induced cell death. So if we learn how to inhibit anastasis, perhaps we can make cancer therapies more effective,” Montell said. “On the other hand, after a heart attack or stroke, cells of the heart or brain die. If we learn how to enhance anastasis, perhaps we can limit the permanent damage due to heart attacks and strokes.”

Will Huang, an undergraduate assistant researcher in Montell’s lab, said the grant will provide for more extensive research opportunities and should make more partnerships possible.

“The collective impact of this grant and other such things will hopefully acknowledge how well our research model works and expand the research opportunities for other undergraduates too,” Huang said. “I think the grant will draw a lot of attention from other researchers to the basic research going on here and open up possibilities for collaborations between our lab and labs working on similar subjects.”

Montell said she hopes the grants will allow them to expand their team and purchase more advanced equipment to aid the research. Along with these goals, Montell said the grant would help researchers “involve undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral trainees in an important biomedical research program” and “thereby enhance their training and launch their scientific careers.”

But one the most important uses of grant money will be for equipment and the hiring of more scholars and researchers, according to Montell.

“We will purchase sophisticated equipment that allows us to follow the cell death and survival process and we will hire new people so that the work can move forward more rapidly,” Montell said.

According to Huang, one project that is currently in progress studies cells in fruit flies and may shed light on how anastasis functions.

“Right now, I’m conducting a little experiment on characterizing and quantifying the effects of cell death in fruit fly ovaries,” Huang said. “It will relate to anastasis because cell death and anastasis are opposite sides of the same coin. To look for revival, we need to find the deaths occurring first.”


A version of this story appeared on page 5 of Thursday, January 23, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.