Valentina Greco, PhD, Carolyn Walch Slayman Professor of Genetics, has been awarded the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s Pioneer Award. The grant, $3.5 million over the next five years, is inspired by Greco’s pioneering research into skin stem cells, which has revealed in intricate detail the secrets to their daily and ever-changing lives. She investigates how tissues maintain themselves throughout life in the face of continuous cellular turnover, frequent injuries and spontaneous mutations—and recently has focused on skin cells’ apparent ability to thwart the formation and spread of cancers.
“Dr. Greco is an outstanding scientist and a pioneer in the stem cell field,” says Sean Morrison, PhD, professor and director of the Children’s Medical Center Research Institute at UT Southwestern and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. “It is exciting that she is applying her creativity and vision to better understand how our tissues suppress the development of cancer. This has big implications for understanding cancer and aging,” he says.
Other scientists have shown how cells in the skin carry a surprisingly high number of mutations, some of which are known drivers of cancer. Occasionally these cells even begin to form tumors in the skin. But during the course of their studies, the Greco group came across something spectacular. They observed that despite the initial formation of these aberrant growths, the skin had somehow found a way to eliminate them. It was a radical departure from the norm, and one that highlighted to Greco the exceptional dynamic tolerance and flexibility of the skin.
“It was incredible - we couldn’t believe what we were seeing,” says Greco. “The fact that these outgrowths were being eliminated, it just went against everything we thought we knew about cancer.”
The discovery also made Greco wonder. “We began to think: what if all these mutations are actually supporting healthy aging by limiting aberrant outgrowths and maintaining the skin in a steady-state?” she says. “Is it possible that mutations in the skin are in fact promoting healthy aging?”
This is the question the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award selection committee hopes the award will help Greco and her lab to answer. The Director’s Pioneer Award is part of the High-Risk, High-Reward Research program at NIH, one that bestows large awards on exceptionally creative and visionary scientists who propose pioneering approaches to a major biomedical challenge. Greco has done just that, and other scientists are eagerly awaiting the answer to her question.
“Dr. Greco’s work is so exciting because she is constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible,” says Deepak Srivastava, MD, president of the Gladstone Institutes, professor, University of California, San Francisco, and current president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. “Both technically and conceptually, every discovery she makes sets a new standard in the field and reveals surprising phenomena that previously seemed barely imaginable,” he says.
Greco is quick to point out that the award is the result of teamwork. “So many of my lab members were involved in the work that led to this award,” she says. “It is because of their immense efforts that our group will push into this exciting new direction. I couldn’t have done it alone.”
Greco says she is both elated and humbled by the award, and itching to get started. But her foray into cancer and aging won’t take away from her passion for stem cells. “We want to understand how skin stem cells operate in the context of many different neighboring cell types. The interface between the needs of different tissues and the interdependent relationships required for organ function over time is fascinating to us,” Greco says.