Kerrie Maire: see cancer through the lens of developmental biology

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Kerrie Marie likes to explore the world from different angles. She plays many different roles in daily life. She is a break dancer who used to actively compete. She is passionate about movement, the arts and culture, so managed to do a short-term study in Japan. She is the mom of a boy and a girl. She is a party organizer and owner of two cats.

AND, she is an outstanding melanoma researcher.

Immediately upon joining the Ph.D. program at the University of Edinburgh, Kerrie discovered the aquarium, and within it, schools of zebrafish. She was fascinated that these tiny fish could provide a fresh new look at pigment cell research: they develop their own distinct coloring pattern while preserving the essential process of melanocyte development within their little size and short lifespan. For the next four years she worked in Dr. Elizabeth Patton’s lab and studied these tiny creatures in order to trace various aspects of the life history of melanocytes. She learned from the fish to become a developmental biologist.

 In 2014, Kerrie joined Glenn Merlino’s group at the National Cancer Institute, NIH, for her postdoctoral research. As the Merlino Lab is well known for modeling melanoma in mice, she was very happy for the opportunity to study pigment cells in a different species. It was not a difficult conversion at all, because for melanocyte development, what happened in fish, continues in mice. Moreover, many of the common themes shared by the developing melanocyte in the two species- migration, invasion, stress management- also take place in melanoma. Kerrie isolated melanocyte precursors during embryonic development in a mouse model, analyzed their gene expression over time, and discovered that a specific set of genes, organized into Developmental Gene Modules (DGMs), could be co-opted by metastatic melanoma. This work, which was published in Nature Communication in 2020 (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-14085-2) and forms the basis for another up-coming manuscript, brought a fresh perspective to melanoma research. It received significant attention immediately and has been cited by many high-profile studies.

 Over the course of her research, Kerrie learned to see cancer “through the lens of developmental biology”, in her own words. She understands that trailblazing in this new territory requires new tools, and has since embraced emerging technologies: single-cell sequencing, spatial transcriptomics, phylogenetic analysis, etc. By applying these to study where cells originate from and what they are evolving into in both normal tissue and cancer, she created the “developmental map” of melanoma progression in high resolution. This map will guide melanoma researchers to identify the switches of the special functions in melanoma, which will be relevant to prognostic markers and therapeutic targets.

 As a consequence of Kerrie’s outstanding research, she was awarded a Wellcome Trust-funded ISSF Fellowship at the University of Manchester, starting in March. This is a funding mechanism for exceptional researchers to work towards securing prestigious externally funded fellowships or investigator awards. She is eager to use the developmental approach to investigate more new perspectives of melanoma, and cautiously optimistic to get funding for the next stage of her career. However, even before starting at Manchester, she has already forged many new collaborations with computational biologists, clinicians, melanoma researchers, and technological innovators.

 “Everyone can see something new from my ‘lens’,” Kerrie smiled. “Have I told you I will use it to see zebrafish again?”

 

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