Welch Group

Welch Group
Welch Group

Research Summary

We study molecular mechanisms that control the Rac protein family, which regulates cell shape, cell movement, oxygen radical formation and gene expression. In particular, we study the proteins that activate Rac, so-called Rac-GEFs. A few years ago, we discovered a new type of Rac-GEF, the P-Rex family, and we have been studying the mechanisms that regulate their activity and their functional roles.

We found that P-Rex family Rac-GEFs are important for the ability of our white blood cells to defend us against bacterial and fungal infections, for the shape and electrical functions of nerve cells that control the coordination of our movements, and for the distribution of skin pigment cells during development. We also participated in studies which showed that the deregulation of the cellular amount or activity of P-Rex family Rac-GEFs contribute to cancer growth and metastasis.

Currently, our lab is investigating new functional roles of P-Rex and other Rac-GEFs, particularly in inflammatory cells, and we are inventing new ways of monitoring Rac-GEF activity.

Latest Publications

Lawson CD, Hornigold K, Pan D, Niewczas I, Andrews S, Clark J, Welch H Signalling, Bioinformatics

P-Rex1 and P-Rex2 are guanine-nucleotide exchange factors (GEFs) that activate Rac small GTPases in response to the stimulation of G protein-coupled receptors and phosphoinositide 3-kinase. P-Rex Rac-GEFs regulate the morphology, adhesion and migration of various cell types, as well as reactive oxygen species production and cell cycle progression. P-Rex Rac-GEFs also have pathogenic roles in the initiation, progression or metastasis of several types of cancer. With one exception, all P-Rex functions are known or assumed to be mediated through their catalytic Rac-GEF activity. Thus, inhibitors of P-Rex Rac-GEF activity would be valuable research tools. We have generated a panel of small-molecule P-Rex inhibitors that target the interface between the catalytic DH domain of P-Rex Rac-GEFs and Rac. Our best-characterized compound, P-Rex inhibitor 1 (PREX-in1), blocks the Rac-GEF activity of full-length P-Rex1 and P-Rex2, and of their isolated catalytic domains, at low-micromolar concentration, without affecting the activities of several other Rho-GEFs. PREX-in1 blocks the P-Rex1 dependent spreading of PDGF-stimulated endothelial cells and the production of reactive oxygen species in fMLP-stimulated mouse neutrophils. Structure-function analysis revealed critical structural elements of PREX-in1, allowing us to develop derivatives with increased efficacy, the best with an IC of 2 µM. In summary, we have developed PREX-in1 and derivative small-molecule compounds that will be useful laboratory research tools for the study of P-Rex function. These compounds may also be a good starting point for the future development of more sophisticated drug-like inhibitors aimed at targeting P-Rex Rac-GEFs in cancer.

+view abstract Small GTPases, PMID: 36342857 Jan 2022

Hornigold K, Chu JY, Chetwynd SA, Machin PA, Crossland L, Pantarelli C, Anderson KE, Hawkins PT, Segonds-Pichon A, Oxley D, Welch HCE Signalling, Bioinformatics, Mass Spectrometry

Host defense against bacterial and fungal infections diminishes with age. In humans, impaired neutrophil responses are thought to contribute to this decline. However, it remains unclear whether neutrophil responses are also impaired in old mice. Here, we investigated neutrophil function in old mice, focusing on responses primed by lipopolysaccharide (LPS), an endotoxin released by gram-negative bacteria like , which signals through toll-like receptor (TLR) 4. We show that old mice have a reduced capacity to clear pathogenic during septic peritonitis. Neutrophil recruitment was elevated during LPS-induced but not aseptic peritonitis. Neutrophils from old mice showed reduced killing of . Their reactive oxygen species (ROS) production was impaired upon priming with LPS but not with GM-CSF/TNFα. Phagocytosis and degranulation were reduced in a partially LPS-dependent manner, whereas impairment of NET release in response to was independent of LPS. Unexpectedly, chemotaxis was normal, as were Rac1 and Rac2 GTPase activities. LPS-primed activation of Erk and p38 Mapk was defective. PIP production was reduced upon priming with LPS but not with GM-CSF/TNFα, whereas PIP levels were constitutively low. The expression of 5% of neutrophil proteins was dysregulated in old age. Granule proteins, particularly cathepsins and serpins, as well as TLR-pathway proteins and membrane receptors were upregulated, whereas chromatin and RNA regulators were downregulated. The upregulation of CD180 and downregulation of MyD88 likely contribute to the impaired LPS signaling. In summary, all major neutrophil responses except chemotaxis decline with age in mice, particularly upon LPS priming. This LPS/TLR4 pathway dependence resolves previous controversy regarding effects of age on murine neutrophils and confirms that mice are an appropriate model for the decline in human neutrophil function.

+view abstract Frontiers in immunology, PMID: 36090969 2022

Crainiciuc G, Palomino-Segura M, Molina-Moreno M, Sicilia J, Aragones DG, Li JLY, Madurga R, Adrover JM, Aroca-Crevillén A, Martin-Salamanca S, Del Valle AS, Castillo SD, Welch HCE, Soehnlein O, Graupera M, Sánchez-Cabo F, Zarbock A, Smithgall TE, Di Pilato M, Mempel TR, Tharaux PL, González SF, Ayuso-Sacido A, Ng LG, Calvo GF, González-Díaz I, Díaz-de-María F, Hidalgo A

Transcriptional and proteomic profiling of individual cells have revolutionized interpretation of biological phenomena by providing cellular landscapes of healthy and diseased tissues. These approaches, however, do not describe dynamic scenarios in which cells continuously change their biochemical properties and downstream 'behavioural' outputs. Here we used 4D live imaging to record tens to hundreds of morpho-kinetic parameters describing the dynamics of individual leukocytes at sites of active inflammation. By analysing more than 100,000 reconstructions of cell shapes and tracks over time, we obtained behavioural descriptors of individual cells and used these high-dimensional datasets to build behavioural landscapes. These landscapes recognized leukocyte identities in the inflamed skin and trachea, and uncovered a continuum of neutrophil states inside blood vessels, including a large, sessile state that was embraced by the underlying endothelium and associated with pathogenic inflammation. Behavioural screening in 24 mouse mutants identified the kinase Fgr as a driver of this pathogenic state, and interference with Fgr protected mice from inflammatory injury. Thus, behavioural landscapes report distinct properties of dynamic environments at high cellular resolution.

+view abstract Nature, PMID: 34987220 05 Jan 2022

Group Members

Heidi Welch

Group Leader

Stephen Chetwynd

PhD Student

Julia Chu

Postdoc Research Scientist

Priota Islam

PhD Student

Valdemar Johansen

Visiting Student

Polly Machin

Visiting Scientist

Ruben Pelaez Morl

Visiting Student