Photo of Qiufu Ma,  PhD

Qiufu Ma, PhD

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Phone: (617) 632-4594
Fax: (617) 632-4595

Qiufu Ma, PhD

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute


  • Professor, Neurobiology, Harvard Medical School
  • Professor of Neurobiology, Cancer Biology, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute


Research Abstract

My laboratory studies neural cell type specification, using mouse sensory system as a model. We focus on two groups of sensory neurons, somatic and visceral. Somatic sensory neurons are critical for sense of touch, pain, temperature and body position, while visceral sensory neurons control taste sensation and cardiorespiratory activities. Our goal is to understand how these distinct classes of sensory neurons are formed and make specific connections to the central targets. The approach we have been using is to conduct genome level survey to identify transcription factors (TFs) associated with sensory neurons, followed by genetic manipulation to study their functions. To this end, we have identified a TF expressed only in pain-related sensory neurons, and have demonstrated that this TF is required for expression of a subset of sensory receptors, including the hot and cold receptors and several sensory specific G-protein coupled receptors. This mouse line will be useful for screening for drugs that are targeted for specific types of pain. We have also been working on a TF that is expressed in neurons important for cardiorespiratory control.

In addition, we try to understand how distinct neurotransmitters are specified in the vertebrate brain. Glutamate and GABA are the predominant excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters, respectively. Disruption of homeostasis of excitation and inhibition is associated with many neurological disorders, such as epilepsy, schizophrenia, chronic pain, depression, and drug dependency. In the past years, we have found that two homeobox proteins, Lbx1 and Rnx, serve as the binary genetic switches that control the choices between GABA and glutamate transmitters. Lbx1 promotes GABA and suppresses glutamate neuron development, while Rnx does exactly opposite, promoting glutamate and suppressing GABA transmitter specification. Our studies provide a molecular basis of how excitatory and inhibitory neurons develop in a mutually exclusive manner, and provide a developmental basis for digital computational control of neuronal activities.


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  • Lou S, Pan X, Huang T, Duan B, Yang FC, Yang J, Xiong M, Liu Y, Ma Q. Incoherent feed-forward regulatory loops control segregation of C-mechanoreceptors, nociceptors, and pruriceptors. J Neurosci 2015; 35:5317-29. PubMed
  • Ma Q. Merkel cells are a touchy subject. Cell 2014; 157:531-3. PubMed
  • Yang FC, Tan T, Huang T, Christianson J, Samad OA, Liu Y, Roberson D, Davis BM, Ma Q. Genetic control of the segregation of pain-related sensory neurons innervating the cutaneous versus deep tissues. Cell Rep 2013; 5:1353-64. PubMed
  • Xu Y, Lopes C, Wende H, Guo Z, Cheng L, Birchmeier C, Ma Q. Ontogeny of excitatory spinal neurons processing distinct somatic sensory modalities. J Neurosci 2013; 33:14738-48. PubMed
  • Roberson DP, Gudes S, Sprague JM, Patoski HA, Robson VK, Blasl F, Duan B, Oh SB, Bean BP, Ma Q, Binshtok AM, Woolf CJ. Activity-dependent silencing reveals functionally distinct itch-generating sensory neurons. Nat Neurosci 2013; 16:910-8. PubMed
  • Herriges JC, Yi L, Hines EA, Harvey JF, Xu G, Gray PA, Ma Q, Sun X. Genome-scale study of transcription factor expression in the branching mouse lung. Dev Dyn 2012; 241:1432-53. PubMed
  • Liu Y, Ma Q. Generation of somatic sensory neuron diversity and implications on sensory coding. Curr Opin Neurobiol 2010. PubMed
  • Ross SE, Mardinly AR, McCord AE, Zurawski J, Cohen S, Jung C, Hu L, Mok SI, Shah A, Savner EM, Tolias C, Corfas R, Chen S, Inquimbert P, Xu Y, McInnes RR, Rice FL, Corfas G, Ma Q, Woolf CJ, Greenberg ME. Loss of inhibitory interneurons in the dorsal spinal cord and elevated itch in Bhlhb5 mutant mice. Neuron 2010; 65:886-98. PubMed
  • Abdel Samad O, Liu Y, Yang FC, Kramer I, Arber S, Ma Q. Characterization of two Runx1-dependent nociceptor differentiation programs necessary for inflammatory versus neuropathic pain. Mol Pain 2010; 6:45. PubMed
  • Ma Q. RETouching upon mechanoreceptors. Neuron 2010; 64:773-6. PubMed
  • Fu H, Cai J, Clevers H, Fast E, Gray S, Greenberg R, Jain MK, Ma Q, Qiu M, Rowitch DH, Taylor CM, Stiles CD. A genome-wide screen for spatially restricted expression patterns identifies transcription factors that regulate glial development. J Neurosci 2009; 29:11399-408. PubMed
  • Schuller U,Heine VM,Mao J,Kho AT,Dillon AK,Han YG,Huillard E,Sun T,Ligon AH,Qian Y,Ma Q,Alvarez-Buylla A,McMahon AP,Rowitch DH,Ligon KL. Acquisition of granule neuron precursor identity is a critical determinant of progenitor cell competence to form Shh-induced medulloblastoma. Cancer Cell 2008; 14:123-34. PubMed
  • Akiyama Y, Ma Q, Edgar E, Laikhter A, Hecht SM. A Novel DNA Hairpin Substrate for Bleomycin. Org Lett 2008; 10:2127-30. PubMed
  • Ma YC, Song MR, Park JP, Henry Ho HY, Hu L, Kurtev MV, Zieg J, Ma Q, Pfaff SL, Greenberg ME. Regulation of motor neuron specification by phosphorylation of neurogenin 2. Neuron 2008; 58:65-77. PubMed
  • Xu Y, Lopes C, Qian Y, Liu Y, Cheng L, Goulding M, Turner EE, Lima D, Ma Q. Tlx1 and Tlx3 coordinate specification of dorsal horn pain-modulatory peptidergic neurons. J Neurosci 2008; 28:4037-46. PubMed
  • Liu Y, Yang FC, Okuda T, Dong X, Zylka MJ, Chen CL, Anderson DJ, Kuner R, Ma Q. Mechanisms of compartmentalized expression of Mrg class G-protein-coupled sensory receptors. J Neurosci 2008; 28:125-32. PubMed
  • Woolf CJ, Ma Q. Nociceptors--noxious stimulus detectors. Neuron 2007; 55:353-64. PubMed
  • Yin JK, Liang YM, He XL, Lu JG, Zhang L, Bao GQ, Ma QJ. Fusion protein containing SH3 domain of c-Abl induces hepatocarcinoma cells to apoptosis. Hepatol Res 2007; 37:454-63. PubMed
  • Rivera-Feliciano J, Lee KH, Kong SW, Rajagopal S, Ma Q, Springer Z, Izumo S, Tabin CJ, Pu WT. Development of heart valves requires Gata4 expression in endothelial-derived cells. Development 2006; 133:3607-18. PubMed
  • He X, Chen MG, Lin GX, Ma Q. Arsenic induces NAD(P)H:quinone oxidoreductase I by disrupting the NRF2/KEAP1/CUL3 complex and recruiting NRF2/MAF to are enhancer. J Biol Chem 2006; 281:23620-31. PubMed
  • Mizuguchi R, Kriks S, Cordes R, Gossler A, Ma Q, Goulding M. Ascl1 and Gsh1/2 control inhibitory and excitatory cell fate in spinal sensory interneurons. Nat Neurosci 2006; 9:770-8. PubMed
  • Chen CL, Broom DC, Liu Y, de Nooij JC, Li Z, Cen C, Samad OA, Jessell TM, Woolf CJ, Ma Q. Runx1 determines nociceptive sensory neuron phenotype and is required for thermal and neuropathic pain. Neuron 2006; 49:365-77. PubMed