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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Faculty Profile: Kathleen Green, PhD, Joseph L. Mayberry, Sr., Professor of Pathology and Toxicology, and Dermatology

Kathleen Green, PhD

A leader in the field of epithelial cell biology, Kathleen Green, PhD, Joseph L. Mayberry, Sr., Professor of Pathology and Toxicology, and Dermatology, studies how cells stick together to provide mechanical strength to tissues and regulate chemical signals important for development and differentiation.

This year, she received two notable honors acknowledging her scientific accomplishments: the Society for Investigative Dermatology’s Albert M. Kligman/Phillip Frost Leadership Lecture Award for her contributions to the understanding of structure and function of skin, and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Humboldt Research Award in recognition of her achievements in research.

Green came to Feinberg in 1982  to conduct postdoctoral research in cell biology. She is also associate director for basic sciences research at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University and associate core director of the Skin Tissue Engineering Core.


What are your research interests?

I am interested in how cell architecture—that is, the intricate network of membranes, organelles, and cytoskeletal elements that make up a cell—coordinates how cells respond to and transmit signals. In my lab we are determining how intercellular adhesive organelles, called desmosomes, contribute to the development and maintenance of multicellular tissues. 

The essential nature of these “sticky” organelles is underscored by the existence of genetic, autoimmune, and bacterial toxin-mediated diseases caused by interference with desmosome function. Based on our work, we now know that desmosomes don’t simply function as cell glue. They also act as spatiotemporal signal integrators to control cytoskeletal function and the balance of cell growth and differentiation. Their ability to control cell growth and differentiation is particularly important in cancer progression, during which alterations in cell adhesion and growth control contribute to invasion and metastasis.

What is the ultimate goal of your research?

Our ultimate goal is to gain fundamental insights into the importance of complex cell-cell adhesion mechanisms in the evolution of multicellularity. A more specific goal is to use these fundamental findings to better understand human disease pathogenesis and identify possible therapeutic approaches to counter the effects of genetic diseases and cancer. For instance, based on signaling defects caused by desmoplakin mutations that cause arrhythmogenic cardiomyopathy, we are considering specific kinase inhibitors and activators that could restore normal cardiac myocyte function in mutant cells and transgenic disease models.

How did you become interested in this area of research?

I actually became interested in this area of research through what some might consider a surprising path. In graduate school, I studied a tiny creature called Volvox in the lab of David Kirk, PhD, at Washington University in St. Louis. Volvox is a spherical multicellular organism related to the single-celled alga called Chlamydomonas. The Volvox spheroid uses its flagella to swim towards a light source.  However, in some mutant Volvox the flagella end up on the inside of the organism, so that it cannot swim. It turns out that many of these mutations interfere with a process requiring the coordination of cell-cell connections and the cytoskeleton to drive a process of morphogenesis that properly positions the flagella on the outside of the organism. This is how I got interested in cell-cell connections and their cooperation with elements of cell architecture.  

How is your research funded?

My research is funded by a MERIT R37 Award from the NIH’s National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) and two additional R01s, one from NIAMS and one from the National Cancer Institute. We are also funded by Fondation LeDucq, and my laboratory members receive important fellowship support from the American Heart Association, the Dermatology Foundation, and the NIH. The Lurie Cancer Center provides support for pilot projects in collaboration with other cancer center members.

What types of collaborations are you engaged in?

We collaborate extensively with investigators interested in skin and oral disease research at Northwestern and all over the world. 

Here at Northwestern we are active participants in the Lurie Cancer Center and its basic science programs, particularly the Tumor Invasion, Metastasis, and Angiogenesis program. We are also active in the Skin Disease Research Center, centered in the Department of Dermatology and headed by Amy Paller, MD. We work with Spiro Getsios, PhD, and others in the Skin Tissue Engineering Core to develop 3-D models of human skin morphogenesis and disease. 

We also have a very productive collaboration with investigators at Tel Aviv University in skin genetics, and we are involved in a Transatlantic Network funded by Fondation LeDucq in Paris to study fundamental mechanisms associated with heart function and disease.  

What do you enjoy about mentoring young scientists?

One of the things I personally enjoy most about science are the “ah ha!” moments when, through collaborative discussions, some critical connection is made that breaks open a whole new way of thinking about a problem. And one of the things that I enjoy most about mentoring young scientists is when they run to my office to share with me their own “ah ha” moment. Those moments make everything worth it!