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Using organic chemistry to decipher embryogenesis

Here’s this week’s Biomed Bites, a weekly feature that highlights some of Stanford’s most innovative research and introduces Scope readers to scientists in a variety of biomedical disciplines. 

For decades, scientists were stumped by a tricky puzzle: How does a fertilized egg cell, nearly uniform, developed into an organism, with specialized cells and a vertical and horizontal axis?

Many experiments demonstrated that several signaling pathways — including one known as the Hedgehog pathway — establish gradients of certain chemicals in a developing organism, allowing cells to differentiate.

Puzzles remain, however. Is it possible to intervene in development gone awry? And, a more recent discovery showed the Hedgehog pathway is active in some cancers. Can that be reversed?

Stanford biochemist James Chen, PhD, uses the magic of organic chemistry to examine developmental pathways. Here's Chen in the video above:

(We're) trying to understand the molecular mechanisms that underlie embryogenesis. We view this through the lens of organic chemistry, meaning that we use small molecules that we synthesize to try to understand the processes that control the patterning of different parts of your body...

Using these tools we can figure out what genes are doing at what time to control the formation of complex structures.

The discoveries made by Chen's team can then be used to develop therapies for a variety of disorders.

Learn more about Stanford Medicine’s Biomedical Innovation Initiative and about other faculty leaders who are driving biomedical innovation here.

Previously: Zebrafish: A must-have for biomedical labs, Viva la hedgehog! Signaling protein also shown to be important in prostate growth and Another blow to the Hedgehog pathway? New hope for patients with drug-resistant cancers

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