Department Directory

Sarah Spiegel, Ph.D.

Sarah SpiegelChair, Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology

PO Box 980614
Richmond, VA 23298-0614

Telephone: 804-828-9330


Ph.D., The Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel, 1983, Biochemistry

  • 1982-1984: Dr. Chaim Weizmann Post-doctoral Fellowship for Scientific Research
  • 1985-1986: Visiting Associate, Membrane Biochemistry Section, Developmental and Metabolic Neurology Branch, NINDS, NIH, Bethesda, Maryland
  • 1982-1984 Dr. Chaim Weizmann Post-doctoral Fellowship for Scientific Research
  • 1997 State-of-the-art Keynote lecture, National Meeting of the American Pancreas Association
  • 1998 Keynote speaker, 33rd Southeastern Regional Lipid Conference
  • 2003 NIH MERIT Award from NIGMS
  • 2007 University Distinguished Scholarship Award
  • 2007 Women in Science, Dentistry, and Medicine (WISDM) Professional Achievement Award
  • 2008 Virginia Outstanding Scientist of the Year
  • 2008 Ernst and Berta Scharrer Medal, Goethe University, Frankfurt, Germany
  • 2009 AAAS Fellow, Medical Sciences Section
  • 2009 ASBMB Avanti Award in Lipids

Sphingosine-1-Phosphate: New Player in Immunity and Cancer

Our research is focused on the enigmatic lipid sphingosine-1-phosphate (S1P) whose role as a bioactive mediator in cell growth regulation was discovered in my lab nearly two decades ago (Nature, 365: 557, 1993). We also demonstrated that the dynamic balance between S1P and its precursors, sphingosine and ceramide, functions as a cellular rheostat that determines whether a cell survives or dies (Nature, 381: 800, 1996). Since then, there has been an explosion in the number of important physiological and pathophysiological processes in which S1P plays a key role, including cancer (cell growth, inhibition of apoptosis, angiogenesis, metastasis), the immune system (asthma, anaphylaxis, autoimmunity, sepsis, tissue rejection, atherosclerosis) and development (fertility, vascular maturation, cardiac, ear and brain development). The puzzle of how such a simple molecule as S1P can have such diverse roles has been resolved by our discovery that it functions not only inside cells but also as a ligand (agonist) for five specific cell-surface receptors (Nature Rev. Mol. Cell Biol. 4: 397, 2003). S1P is formed inside cells by two sphingosine kinases, SphK1 and SphK2, which we cloned and characterized, and can be exported out by specific transporters to activate its own receptors (PNAS 103:16394, 2006) in autocrine and/or paracrine manners (Science 291: 1800, 2001). This process that we call ‘inside-out signaling’ is important for many of the physiological and pathological actions of S1P (Cancer Cell 9: 148, 2006). More recently, we identified important direct intracellular targets of S1P. We showed that S1P produced by nuclear SphK2 binds to histone deacetylases and inhibits their activity, thus linking S1P and sphingolipid metabolism in the nucleus to gene expression and epigenetic regulation (Science 325: 1254, 2009). We also discovered that S1P is a missing essential cofactor for the ubiquitin ligase activity of tumor necrosis factor receptor associated factor 2 (TRAF2), uncovering a key role of SphK1 and S1P in cytokine signaling and NF-kappaB activation important in inflammatory, anti-apoptotic, and immune processes (Nature 465: 1084, 2010). Our research continues to be focused on the roles of S1P, the enzymes that regulate its levels (SphK1 and SphK2 and S1P phosphatases) as well as the S1P receptors and intracellular targets of S1P in physiology and pathophysiology.


View Dr. Spiegel's Publications via the National Library of Medicine's PubMed.


VCU Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Virginia Commonwealth University VCU Medical Center
Video Gallery