Michael P. Sheetz

Welch Distinguished Chair in Chemistry The University of Texas Medical Branch

Mike Sheetz is studying the detailed molecular mechanisms involved in a variety of cellular phenomena from cancer metastasis to aging and muscle function. This includes understanding the mechanical aspects of certain cells that allows them to sense their environment and then adapt to it.

“Biodiversity depends on this ability – how mechanics control reproductivity to create a proper form – but we don’t know much about it,” he said.

Dr. Sheetz joined UTMB in 2019 from the Mechanobiology Institute in Singapore, after previous stints at Columbia and Duke Universities.

Research has shown that mechanical stresses will kill cancer cells while normal cells thrive in the same conditions. His group is trying to exploit this reaction by using ultrasound. He hopes to use ultrasound to mimic the stress on cells caused by exercise – a reaction known to be beneficial in fighting many types of cancer.

Dr. Sheetz has detailed the pathway and created a working model. He has shown the approach works in vitro and it has seen limited success in mice. He now is trying to expand the process and make it more reliable. The next step would be to bring it to clinical trial.

“We’re having fun. It’s nice to have these new challenges. It’s why we do science – invigorating and hopefully helpful down the road,” Dr. Sheetz said.

Dr. Sheetz’s major emphasis is on bringing the implications of mechanical effects on cells to the translational stage and ultimately useful treatments. Treating people mechanically – as opposed to using drugs – could significantly reduce negative side effects. He hopes that mechanics may eventually prove effective in fighting cancer and other maladies.

The professor and his team also are interested in how mechanics affect aging. Exercise is known to reverse many effects of getting older and he believes ultrasound will prove effective in reversing aging.

“I am excited about the research’s potential,” he said. “We are still at the fundamental science level, but the results have profound implications for patient care.”

“While I have CPRIT dollars too – for which I am very grateful, Welch funding was vital in helping me hit the ground running when I arrived at UTMB and to develop our research program full speed – even in the face of COVID,” Dr. Sheetz said. “Welch support also allows us to move quickly into new areas such as aging– speeding up the process of getting the equipment and other resources we need to tackle new challenges.”