Heidi Welch

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

Rho Family GTPases and Rho GEFs in Glucose Homeostasis.
Machin PA, Tsonou E, Hornigold DC, Welch HCE

Dysregulation of glucose homeostasis leading to metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes is the cause of an increasing world health crisis. New intriguing roles have emerged for Rho family GTPases and their Rho guanine nucleotide exchange factor (GEF) activators in the regulation of glucose homeostasis. This review summates the current knowledge, focusing in particular on the roles of Rho GEFs in the processes of glucose-stimulated insulin secretion by pancreatic β cells and insulin-stimulated glucose uptake into skeletal muscle and adipose tissues. We discuss the ten Rho GEFs that are known so far to regulate glucose homeostasis, nine of which are in mammals, and one is in yeast. Among the mammalian Rho GEFs, P-Rex1, Vav2, Vav3, Tiam1, Kalirin and Plekhg4 were shown to mediate the insulin-stimulated translocation of the glucose transporter GLUT4 to the plasma membrane and/or insulin-stimulated glucose uptake in skeletal muscle or adipose tissue. The Rho GEFs P-Rex1, Vav2, Tiam1 and β-PIX were found to control the glucose-stimulated release of insulin by pancreatic β cells. In vivo studies demonstrated the involvement of the Rho GEFs P-Rex2, Vav2, Vav3 and PDZ-RhoGEF in glucose tolerance and/or insulin sensitivity, with deletion of these GEFs either contributing to the development of metabolic syndrome or protecting from it. This research is in its infancy. Considering that over 80 Rho GEFs exist, it is likely that future research will identify more roles for Rho GEFs in glucose homeostasis.

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Cells, 10, 4, 16 Apr 2021

PMID: 33923452

PtdIns(3,4,5)P-dependent Rac exchanger 1 (P-Rex1) promotes mammary tumor initiation and metastasis.
Srijakotre N, Liu HJ, Nobis M, Man J, Yip HYK, Papa A, Abud HE, Anderson KI, Welch HCE, Tiganis T, Timpson P, McLean CA, Ooms LM, Mitchell CA

The Rac-GEF, P-Rex1, activates Rac1 signaling downstream of G protein-coupled receptors and PI3K. Increased P-Rex1 expression promotes melanoma progression; however, its role in breast cancer is complex, with differing reports of the effect of its expression on disease outcome. To address this we analyzed human databases, undertook gene array expression analysis, and generated unique murine models of P-Rex1 gain or loss of function. Analysis of mRNA expression in breast cancer cDNA arrays and a METABRIC cohort revealed that higher mRNA in ER/luminal tumors was associated with poor outcome in luminal B cancers. deletion in MMTV- or MMTV- mice reduced Rac1 activation in vivo and improved survival. High level MMTVdriven transgenic expression resulted in apicobasal polarity defects and increased mammary epithelial cell proliferation associated with hyperplasia and development of de novo mammary tumors. MMTV- expression in MMTV- mice increased tumor initiation and enhanced metastasis in vivo, but had no effect on primary tumor growth. Pharmacological inhibition of Rac1 or MEK1/2 reduced P-Rex1-driven tumoroid formation and cell invasion. Therefore, P-Rex1 can act as an oncogene and cooperate with HER2/neu to enhance breast cancer initiation and metastasis, despite having no effect on primary tumor growth.

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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 1, 1, 23 Oct 2020

PMID: 33097662

Removing physiological motion from intravital and clinical functional imaging data.
Warren SC, Nobis M, Magenau A, Mohammed YH, Herrmann D, Moran I, Vennin C, Conway JR, Mélénec P, Cox TR, Wang Y, Morton JP, Welch HC, Strathdee D, Anderson KI, Phan TG, Roberts MS, Timpson P

Intravital microscopy can provide unique insights into the function of biological processes in a native context. However, physiological motion caused by peristalsis, respiration and the heartbeat can present a significant challenge, particularly for functional readouts such as fluorescence lifetime imaging (FLIM), which require longer acquisition times to obtain a quantitative readout. Here, we present and benchmark , a versatile multi-platform software tool for image-based correction of sample motion blurring in both time resolved and conventional laser scanning fluorescence microscopy data in two and three dimensions. We show that is able to resolve intravital FLIM-FRET images of intra-abdominal organs in murine models and NADH autofluorescence of human dermal tissue imaging subject to a wide range of physiological motions. Thus, can enable FLIM imaging in situations where a stable imaging platform is not always possible and rescue previously discarded quantitative imaging data.

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eLife, 7, 2050-084X, 2018

PMID: 29985127