Dr. William Lowry: Digging Beneath the Surface of Skin Cancer


Dr. William Lowry

Discovery is only skin deep for scientist William E. Lowry.

Trained in epidermal biology, the UCLA assistant professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology spends much of his laboratory time isolating stem cells in skin and studying the signals that instruct them to grow or differentiate.

“The anatomy of skin has been studied for a hundred years. It’s an accessible and well-described system,” said Lowry, a researcher at UCLA’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine and the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. “The broad, basic questions about the organ and system have been answered. We can get into the more detailed, nitty-gritty questions.”

And it’s the quest to understand the nitty-gritty that drives Lowry’s scientific pursuits.

“When you deal with clinical questions involving the whole tissue or system, you have many more variables,” Lowry said. “If you study questions at a molecular level, you discover the underlying mechanisms that make tissues and systems work. Data are much more precise.”

Found in most major organ systems, adult stem cells provide a source for replenishing tissue lost to damage or simple wear and tear. Stem cells have the ability to both self-renew and differentiate into specific types of cells.

Lowry and his UCLA team are interested in whether stem cells found in different tissues and organs use similar mechanisms to undergo self-renewal and differentiation. By understanding these processes, Lowry hopes to bring new insight to the “cancer stem cell” hypothesis.

“That’s the idea that malignant tumors, and maybe tumors in general, may be a derivative of a stem cell gone haywire as opposed to a regular cell,” Lowry explained. “While many scientists are interested in how to stop the spread of tumors, I’m interested in what initiates tumors.”

Lowry thought he wanted to be a physician when he entered his freshman year at the University of Washington, but his experiences in the lab as an undergraduate sent him down a different career path. Lowry subsequently studied cell signaling as a graduate student at Cornell Medical College and sharpened that focus to stem cells while conducting postdoctoral work at Rockefeller University.

“The field wasn’t as developed at that point as it is now,” Lowry said. “It took a while to characterize a system and sort of figure out stem cells. We didn’t actually study signaling until the latter part of my postdoctoral training.”

As stem cell knowledge has increased exponentially in recent years, the potential for using stem cells to heal and regenerate entire systems and organs has captured the imaginations of both the public and politicians.

“The public perception can be a little distracting, but it’s nice people are interested,” Lowry said. “The whole stem cell frenzy has brought attention and new money to the field. The interest is helpful not only for research like mine but for the biological research community in general.”

California’s support for the field through its stem cell initiative, Proposition 71, and UCLA’s success at developing the infrastructure necessary to support this kind of work was a drawing card for Lowry to join the faculty, as was the university’s collegial atmosphere.

“I really like the atmosphere,” said Lowry, who came to UCLA in July 2006. “It’s scientifically rigorous but at the same time pretty friendly and laid back. UCLA had their act together in terms of the kinds of things I was interested in studying. It made it very easy to decide to come here.”

As he sets up his UCLA lab and gets to know the graduate students and colleagues who will be working with him, Lowry recalls lessons learned from his former boss, the late Harold M. Weintraub, a researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington.

“I got the feeling from working in his lab and from his reputation among his assistants and peers that he was someone special to work with, not only because he was super smart but because he was generous scientifically,” Lowry said. “He wasn’t paranoid about sharing his work, and he helped people develop their ideas. I’ve always tried to live up to that ideal, if not scientifically then at least to his generosity of ideas.”

By Dan Page, 2007