4 December: Professor Shaun Cowley

Posted by dmrbp1 at Sep 21, 2017 04:55 PM |
Part of the Inaugural Lecture Series for the academic year 2017-18

Professor Shaun Cowley of the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology gave a lecture titled 'Gene regulation: 25 years spent trying to understand the on/off switch' on Monday 4 December 2017 in Lecture Theatre 1, George Davies Centre


What makes each cell unique is the ability to switch combinations of genes on and off. Human cells contain approximately 20,000 genes but only around one-third of these are active in any given cell type. Individual cell types must decide which genes to activate in order to function and then keep all of the remaining genes quiet. This process is known as ‘gene regulation’. Prof Cowley discussed the 25 years he has spent studying mechanisms of gene regulation - the ‘molecular on/off switch’ – in hungry bacteria, breast cancer cells addicted to oestrogen and embryonic stem cells lacking key histone modifying enzymes.


Prof Shaun Cowley started academic life at the University of Birmingham studying Biochemistry (1991-94). As a final year student he worked in Steve Busby’s lab on the principles of gene regulation, the fundamental process of turning DNA sequence (via RNA) into protein, sparking an interest which would shape his subsequent career. From Birmingham he moved to London and a PhD at Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF - 1994-98), the institute which would subsequently become the London Research Institute (LRI) and more recently part of the Crick Institute. Shaun worked in Malcolm Parkers group studying transcriptional regulation by the oestrogen receptor (ER), a member of the nuclear receptor superfamily. This was his first introduction to mammalian cell culture and the role of transcription factors in the regulation of cell growth. ICRF at this time, with Paul Nurse as its director, was a hot-house for young PhD students, instilling an academic and intellectual ambition. Like many of its graduates (with something to prove) Shaun decided to go to the USA, and having interviewed in a number of labs, chose to go to Seattle and join Bob Eisenman’s group at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle (1999-2004). It was during this period that the ‘histone code’ – the ability to regulate genes via chemical modification of histones – was first described and then demonstrated to be an essential mechanism of gene expression. The Eisenman lab had contributed to this growing field by showing that the co-repressor, Sin3A, repressed transcription by recruiting histone deacetylase (HDAC) enzymes 1 and 2. After ICRF, Bob’s group and the ‘Hutch’ were also an education. Group meetings on a Friday morning would commonly last two hours, debates would be long and intense with the presenter grilled on every aspect of their science – it was great..! After five productive years in Seattle (accumulating 7 papers, 2 children and a wife), Shaun moved back to the UK to learn more about mouse genomics with Allan Bradley, who was then Director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute (2004-2006). It was there that he learned to grow embryonic stem cells and edit their genes – both core skills today in the Cowley lab. The transgenic mouse models (HDAC1-KO, HDAC2-KO, etc.) created at the Sanger institute would form the basis of the research programme used in his successful application for an MRC Career Development Award (2007-2011), which was awarded in the same week as his offer of a lectureship at the University of Leicester. The fledgling Cowley lab moved into the Henry Wellcome building in 2007 and with the aid of two stellar PhD students (Oliver Dovey and Charlie Foster) and some excellent local collaborators was able to produce some well received papers within the HDAC field. Promising enough at least that when Shaun returned to the MRC in 2012 he was awarded a prestigious 7-year Senior non-Clinical Fellowship (2012-19), allowing the type of long-term research projects that are a rare luxury in academic science. Since joining the faculty in Leicester in 2007 the Cowley lab has published 15 papers (in PNAS, Nature, Molecular Cell, Blood, etc.), generated numerous transgenic mice and ES cell lines used around the world, graduated 5 PhD students and brought in over £5M of grant income. He is a keen cricketer, playing for the University Staff team, a golfer and prays regularly for Derby County’s rightful return to the Premier League (for more than one season and 8pts).

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