Principal Investigator

Douglas Robinson

Douglas Robinson is a cell biologist who investigates how cells form the shapes required for the specialized functions necessary for human health.  Our program is designed to decipher cellular morphogenesis from molecular and biophysical perspectives, to identify broad principles relevant for healthy and disease states, and to leverage our knowledge to identify and develop small molecule modulators (possible future drugs) of cell mechanics.  We explore how chemical signaling and mechanical inputs intersect to guide cell and tissue behavior. By applying forward genetics, quantitative cell biology, biochemistry and cell biophysics with computational approaches, we are developing understanding of cell morphogenesis that has predictive power.  A major goal is to be able to predict how cell and tissue systems will operate under diverse contexts and in response to a variety of insults.  Because mechanics are central to cell behavior, we also seek to identify novel small molecule modulators of cell mechanics.  Towards this goal, we have already utilized our amoeboid system to identify one such compound, 4-HAP, which increases cortical myosin-II and cortical elasticity.  We are testing 4-HAP in a variety of disease scenarios with potential in pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma advancing most rapidly.  Finally, we are advancing our comparative effort, focusing on a range of mammalian systems and disease models, including pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and degenerative motor neuron disease, where cell mechanics play a prominent role.  Overall, we have built an exciting and rich research program, which will have significant impact for understanding how biochemical pathways and mechanical inputs interact to direct cell behavior in single cells, multi-cellular development, and human disease.

Doug completed his B.S. degree in genetic biology at Purdue University (’91).  He then completed his doctoral degree with Lynn Cooley at Yale University School of Medicine (’97) and postdoctoral training with Jim Spudich at Stanford University School of Medicine (’97-’01).  Doug was a Damon Runyon Fellow, a recipient of the Burroughs Wellcome Career Award in the Biomedical Sciences, a Beckman Young Investigator, and an American Cancer Society Research Scholar.  Doug is the 2015 recipient of the Johns Hopkins University Professors’ Award for Excellence in Teaching in Biomedical Sciences and the 2016 recipient of the Biophysical Society’s Emily M. Gray Award for ‘Significant Contributions to Education in Biophysics’.  Doug is also the recipient of the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s 2017 Ruth Kirschstein Diversity in Science Award for “the encouragement of under-represented minorities to enter the scientific enterprise and/or to the effective mentorship of those within it.”  Doug was also recognized as a Discovery Communications’ Science Super Hero for ‘individuals who have used science to make a difference in their community’, and in 2018, he received the Johns Hopkins Provost’s Prize for Faculty Excellence in Diversity.

Some of our research

From model systems to human airway, uncovering critical biology for airway disease intervention

We are identifying new, critical biology underlying airway diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other fibrotic lung diseases.  To do this, we have built a platform, which leverages a model system, Dictyostelium discoideum, to identify relevant genes  for protecting cells from toxins, such…

Synthetic Cells, Reconstitution of a Minimal Cortex

To decipher the relative contributions of the membrane and cortex to cells, we built a minimal cortex inside a giant unilamellar vesicle and compared the mechanics of the synthetic cell to those of wild type cells and cells where we progressively removed important cytoskeletal components….

Leveraging cellular mechanical adaptability to target diseases such as cancer

We have created a platform-based approach to small molecule discovery based on the concept that major health challenges, namely cancer metastasis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, are associated with defects in control of cell and tissue morphology and mechanics. We bring a unique suite of…