Physician-scientist bridges the neurobiology lab to the NICU

Image of developing cells
The complex communication network among developing embryonic tissues and organs.

As a neonatologist at UChicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital, Timothy Sanders, MD, PhD, provides care for some of the most vulnerable infants in the neonatal intensive care unit. But as a scientist with a lab in the Grossman Institute for Neuroscience, Quantitative Biology and Human Behavior, he studies some of the most basic elements of life, including how cells organize and communicate with each other during embryogenesis to develop tissues, organs, limbs and the nervous system.

Sanders earned his PhD in neurobiology at the University of Chicago in the lab of Cliff Ragsdale, PhD, who is best known for decoding the octopus genome. After medical school and additional training in neonatal medicine elsewhere, these two stages of Sanders’ career would seem like polar opposites, yet his background is characteristic of a physician-scientist at the University of Chicago Medicine.

“I came back to the University of Chicago, in part because of the rich intellectual community that is engaging, welcoming and open to collaboration,” he said. “The developmental biology community and the neuroscience community are exceptional, both in talent and also in their willingness to embrace new ideas and to explore projects. I find that very appealing.”

The developmental biology community and the neuroscience community at UChicago are exceptional, both in talent and also in their willingness to embrace new ideas.

Sanders studies the mechanisms that early embryos and maturing tissues use as the blueprint for development at a cellular level. These mechanisms are essential for understanding how organs develop and how tissues prepare themselves to regenerate. While some developmental biologists focus on how genetic instructions embedded in DNA determine the shape and form of cells and tissues, Sanders believes that their ultimate fate is also determined by their environment, which instructs the behavior of cells and in turn activates their developmental programs.

Using powerful new imaging tools and data processing technology, partnering with the likes of UChicago’s Advanced Electron Microscopy Facility and Integrated Light Microscopy Core Facility, this line of inquiry can help Sanders and his colleagues understand not just how tissues form, but what happens when things go wrong. These early cellular mishaps can lead to the kinds of congenital anomalies Sanders sees in patients from the NICU, things like cleft lip and palate, missing digits or malformed limbs, or spinal conditions like spina bifida. By learning more about the root causes of these conditions, he hopes to uncover clues to predicting or even preventing them.

“Yes, we can understand how congenital malformations occur, but how can we convince cells to regenerate and repair themselves? How can we more effectively use stem cells during this process?” he said. “Now with advanced imaging, we can actually look and see at extremely high resolution how cells are communicating and reacting to their environment during development.”