In search of . . . tissue formation, Anthony N. Imbalzano, PhD

March 22, 2011

Each Tuesday, the Daily Voice features a first-person narrative from a researcher explaining the science behind a recent grant, and the inspiration or impetus behind becoming a scientist at UMass Medical School. If you know of a researcher you’d like to see profiled, send an e-mail to


Anthony N. Imbalzano, PhD, professor of cell biology, talks about his recent grant, Epigenetic Control of Adipogenesis from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, two years, $746,038. 

 Anthony N. Imbalzano

Our research addresses how cells develop into specific lineages to promote tissue formation. In this study, we are interested in the mechanisms that cause precursor cells to become adipocytes, or fat cells. There are tens of thousands of genes that exist in each cell, and we are focused on how some of them get turned on for adipocyte formation to occur. This process involves a substantial number of enzymes, called epigenetic regulators, which alter the DNA structure around these genes. Understanding how these epigenetic regulators function is central to understanding tissue formation and development. 

Small molecules that modify the activity of certain epigenetic regulators have already proven effective in the treatment of several forms of cancer. If the epigenetic regulation of fat cell formation is better understood, similar strategies might also be utilized to address issues in obesity and diabetes. 

Before becoming a scientist, my original career plan was to become a veterinarian. As a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, I was unable to get a work-study job in a clinic at the veterinary hospital, but I did get a job in a research lab upstairs. Within a year, I had my own project and I was hooked. Plus, I had shadowed a local veterinarian during high school and on college breaks, and it seemed like most of his time was spent spaying and neutering cats and dogs. The never-ending search for answers in the laboratory seemed so much more appealing. 

It was apparent during my interview at UMass Medical School that the level of interaction and the spirit of collaborative science that exists here was unlike anything I had experienced before. I felt that if I accepted a position here, I instantly would be part of a community. That turned out to be absolutely correct.