Ellen A. Lumpkin, Ph.D.
Dr. Ellen A. Lumpkin's major goal of research is to elucidate molecular mechanisms of cutaneous somatosensation, which initiates the senses of touch, temperature and itch in mammals. Her group focuses on Merkel cell-neurite complexes, light touch receptors that mediate fine tactile discrimination required for manual dexterity in humans and other mammals. Although Merkel cells are one of only four conserved cells types in the vertebrate epidermis, their function in the skin is still debated. For example, Merkel cells have been proposed to serve as light touch receptors, to regulate the hair cycle and to modulate cutaneous immune function.
Dr. Lumpkin's NIAMS- and NINDS-funded research aims to fill this gap by defining the role of Merkel cells in the skin and determining the signaling molecules that mediate interactions between Merkel cells, cutaneous sensory neurons and other cell types in the skin. Her multidisciplinary approach combines sensory physiology, mouse genetics, molecular biology and histology. Her group completed a DNA microarray screen that identified over 350 Merkel-cell-enriched transcripts, including transcription factors, ion channels, neurotransmitters and neuropeptides. This work provides a rich database of potential signaling intermediaries between Merkel cells and surrounding cell types. Her group's recent progress has provided the first direct support for the hypothesis that Merkel cells are light touch receptors. Dr. Lumpkin and her colleagues demonstrated that Merkel cells are essential for properly encoding light touch in mammals. Moreover, they have shown that Merkel cells are intrinsically mechanosensitive in vitro and have begun to dissect underlying signal transduction mechanisms. Finally, they made the surprising discovery that Merkel cells are derived from epidermal precursors rather than from the neural crest.
A long-range goal of the research is to define new targets for touch hypersensitivity in chronic pain states.
Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion
1150 St Nicholas Avenue, Room 302B
New York, NY 10032