April 01, 2012

Deborah Gumucio, PhD

Deborah Gumucio, PhD
What are you thinking about?

My laboratory studies intestinal organogenesis, with an emphasis on the role of one soluble signaling pathway (called hedgehog) on multiple aspects of development as well as adult intestinal homeostasis. We’ve found seven major cell types that respond in different ways to hedgehog signals and we’re further investigating the cell-specificity of those responses. Acting through different cell types, hedgehog signals direct formation of intestinal villi, and control of the inflammatory response, among other things.

Why is this interesting to you?

I’m fascinated with developmental biology and the intestine is a wonderful organ in which to study these processes. The intestine starts as a flat sheet of endoderm, wraps into a tube, and gives rise to multiple connected organs (esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine). In the intestine, fingerlike projections (villi) provide amplified surface area for absorption. The molecular mechanisms that drive villus formation are very interesting, as is the dramatic growth in intestinal length that occurs in mid-fetal life.

What are the practical implications for health care?

In the fetus, our investigations of villus formation and intestinal length generation could improve the ability to treat short bowel syndrome and intestinal failure. In the adult, our studies of hedgehog signaling have revealed critical roles in smooth muscle homeostasis and in inflammatory signaling, findings with important implications for irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. Interestingly, drugs that block hedgehog signaling are now in clinical trial for multiple cancers; our recent studies indicate that long-term use of such drugs could reduce intestinal smooth muscle and promote intestinal inflammation.

When you’re not working, what do you do?

Spend time with my family! My husband Jorge is a retired physician with an addiction to sailing; two of my sons, Nicholas and Jonathan, live in Ann Arbor and the rest of my children (Carolina, Felipe, Javier) live in Chicago and Texas. I love golf, photography, writing poetry, U-M sports, music, theater, cooking, my two dogs (Pongo and Baloo) and most of all, my 7 grandchildren!

What moment in the lab stands out as the most memorable?

I have had 13 such “champagne moments,” with the thesis defenses of each of the 13 graduate students that have enlightened my laboratory and contributed to its successes.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

Founding the U-M Center for Organogenesis, and its more recent offspring, Bioartography. Both enterprises are a tribute to the collaborative spirit here at Michigan and embody why I love U-M!

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

My high school biology teacher, Mr. Fred Case. In a small high school in Saginaw, Mich., we observed migrating geese, sampled pond water for minute creatures and learned how to pollinate orchids. He taught me to observe and inspired me to love biology.

Which three people (living or dead) would you invite to dinner?

I would love to have dinner with Barbara McClintock (my scientific hero), Yo Yo Ma (my favorite musician) and Aristotle (an amazing developmental biologist whom I quote often in my lectures). I would cook empanadas de mariscos and serve torte de lucuma for dessert (my favorite Chilean dishes!).