||Andrea Page-McCaw, assistant professor in developmental genetics and molecular biology. Photo by Gary Gold.
Molecular biologist Andrea Page-McCaw uses fruit flies to better understand a group of enzymes called matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs). Ultimately, her research could help the pharmaceutical industry develop better cancer drugs. She is one of eight new members of the biology department who are helping to expand the university’s research scope in biotechnology.
By Jodi Ackerman Frank
When Andrea Page-McCaw interviewed last year for a faculty position, she knew that Rensselaer’s Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies was still in the making.
“But the plans were promising. I could see that Bob Palazzo (the center’s director) had a vision of where Rensselaer was going and I trusted in it,” says Page-McCaw, assistant professor in developmental genetics and molecular biology.
Page-McCaw is one of eight new faculty members appointed in Rensselaer’s Biology Department in the past two years. They are helping to expand the university’s research scope in biotechnology with their expertise in cellular, biochemical, and biophysical approaches to the life sciences.
Page-McCaw came to Rensselaer last fall after a six-year research fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, where she conducted seminal research on a group of enzymes called matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs).
MMPs have been associated with many illnesses, including inflammatory diseases, and have been implicated in all stages of tumor progression in cancer. Although there is evidence that their normal purpose is to help in wound healing and joint lubrication, little is still known about how MMPs work normally in the body.
Major stumbling blocks are that the family of enzymes is large about 22 in humans and mice and they exhibit complex interdependence with one another.
But, Page-McCaw has opened a new door to MMP research by studying the fruit fly, which only has two such enzymes. At UC Berkeley, she discovered that each enzyme is critical for fruit fly survival. “If either one is disabled, the fruit fly dies,” she says.
At Rensselaer, Page-McCaw is focusing on which proteins and cells rely on the enzymes in fruit flies. Her work could benefit the pharmaceutical industry. In the 1990s, the industry all but abandoned its decade-long support for research to develop MMP inhibitors as cancer drugs. The drugs were not very effective and had crippling side affects, such as severe joint pain, she says.
“If we can better understand MMPs and distinguish differences between normal and pathological function in each one, then we perhaps can improve inhibitors for new cancer drugs,” Page-McCaw says.
Page-McCaw, who grew up in Belmont, Mass., earned her undergraduate degree in history and science at Harvard University. After college, she landed a job in a law firm in Washington, D.C., tracking clean-air legislation for lobbyists.
“I really enjoyed conducting the research. The problem was I was more involved with figuring out who knows what and who thinks what and less concerned with facts. That didn’t appeal to me,” she says.
In 1990, while at the law firm, she took a night class in biochemistry at American University. The same year, when she returned home during Thanksgiving break, she applied for an entry-level research technician at Harvard Medical School. She was hired the following February by Tim Bestor, a professor in the Anatomy and Cellular Biology Department.
“I was trained really well,” she says. “He needed me to do a good job because I was doing his work and I was the only one he had.”
In the lab, Page-McCaw studied DNA methyltransferase, an enzyme that likely controls gene expression. After a year and half at the lab and taking night and summer classes in genetics and physics, she was accepted into MIT, where she earned her Ph.D. in biology in 1998.
While at MIT, Page-McCaw met her husband, Patrick McCaw. They married in July 1998, one month after they both graduated. They had a daughter, Rebecca, in 2000. Patrick, whose married name also is Page-McCaw, is another new faculty member in Rensselaer’s Biology Department.
The Cancer Link
Andrea Page-McCaw first turned to the fruit fly at MIT to conduct research in cell division. For her postdoctoral research, she wanted to do something that would have immediate medical significance. To do so, she assumed she would have to switch from fruit flies to mice. However, as she attended a variety of cancer seminars, she found time and again the seminal insight in each research program came from genetic work in fruit flies.
“I realized I didn’t have to give up on the tools I worked with, but apply the tools to a new problem,” she says.
A seminar in Boston first exposed her to MMP research, but the research program was one of the few that didn’t highlight insights from fruit flies because the enzymes were only studied in vertebrates.
“I realized that if they could see how MMPs worked in flies, they would have much clearer hypotheses to test in vertebrates,” Page-McCaw says.
“We are most fortunate to have someone of Andrea Page-McCaw’s intellect and potential join our faculty. Given her history of training in genetics and molecular biology, Andrea brings important model systems for research and many needed skills for the development of the life sciences and biotechnology at Rensselaer,” says center director Bob Palazzo, who also chairs the biology department. “I look forward to watching her success unfold at Rensselaer.”