BioMed 21’s three units: New research unites disciplines, facilitates treatment advances

To meet BioMed 21’s goal of applying data from the Human Genome Project to rapidly advance diagnosis and treatment of human illness, the University is planning three new research units: a Genome Sciences and Human Genetics Program, a Center for Biological Imaging and a Division of Clinical Sciences.

The units, which will involve members of the Medical and Hilltop campuses, will address challenges of the post-genomic era of biomedicine by bringing faculty from biology, physics, engineering and computer sciences together to collaboratively study how complex networks of genes and their products interact in health and in disease.

The research units will also accelerate the processes that allow clinicians to use the latest scientific insights to more accurately diagnose disease, develop new treatments, monitor the effects of treatments and seek new ways to prevent illness.

KTVI reporter Tom O'Neal (left) interviews GSC Director Richard K. Wilson about the research units at the BioMed 21 news conference.
KTVI reporter Tom O’Neal (left) interviews GSC Director Richard K. Wilson about the research units at the BioMed 21 news conference.

At the heart of all the new units is a sense that biomedical research is entering a remarkably fast-paced period of pioneering advances.

“This is a genuinely exciting time for medicine,” said R. Gilbert Jost, M.D., the Elizabeth Mallinckrodt Professor, director of the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology and head of the Department of Radiology. “Probably more discoveries are going to take place in the next decade than have taken place in the last five decades.”

Jeffrey I. Gordon, M.D., the Dr. Robert J. Glaser Distinguished University Professor and head of the Department of Molecular Biology and Pharmacology, compared the excitement of the current era of biomedicine to when Francis Crick and James Watson identified DNA as the carrier of hereditary information 50 years ago.

“During the past five years, we have arrived at the point where we have looked inside ourselves and seen the genetic blueprint that defines our species,” Gordon said. “This knowledge is propelling us toward a level of molecular understanding of ourselves as a life form that was previously limited to simpler organisms.

“We have an unprecedented opportunity to apply this knowledge to understand the genetic and biochemical basis of human health and disease.”

As one of the five founding members of the Genome Sciences and Human Genetics Program, Gordon will move his laboratory into renovated research space in the same building that houses the GSC.

The move is part of what Gordon calls “creating a common intellectual space” where scientists with multiple specialties can join forces to study how biological systems function at multiple levels.

Future plans for the program include core facilities for finding mutations in human DNA, rapidly assessing and comparing the activity levels of thousands of genes in healthy and diseased tissues and creating animal models of human diseases.

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Organizers hope the program will lead to the identification of new biomarkers, key proteins that can be used to learn more about the genetic and environmental factors that cause conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. They want to use biomarkers to customize treatments to the unique mix of disease-causing factors present in any given patient.

Key support for this work will come from the Center for Biological Imaging. Jost said the center will help biological imaging progress from focusing on gross anatomy — broken bones and tumors, for example — to the delicate molecular interactions that underlie cellular and genetic processes.

“Today, we’re diagnosing and treating diseases when they become clinically evident,” Jost said. “Tomorrow, we will be looking into who is genetically predisposed to specific conditions. We will be visualizing the underlying mechanisms that bring about those diseases, which will allow us to develop more effective treatments.”

In the Center for Biological Imaging, researchers will work to develop new and improved imaging techniques for visualizing processes at the cellular level, including equipment capable of studying those processes at the same level of detail in animal models of disease.

Jost and others have a second BioMed 21 imaging initiative still on the drawing boards. They hope to create a new clinical imaging facility at Barnes-Jewish Hospital for taking the imaging concepts discovered in the laboratory and applying them to humans. The new state-of-the-art facility will be dedicated to clinical imaging research, eliminating the need for researchers to compete for time on scanning units.

The research imaging facility will be closely affiliated with the University’s third new research unit, the Division of Clinical Sciences. Modeled after the University’s successful Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences, the division will unite many departments in the establishment and maintenance of shared facilities that support patient-oriented research.

Kenneth S. Polonsky, M.D., the Adolphus Busch Professor and chairman of the Department of Medicine, envisions the division encompassing the University’s many clinical departments and including “broad participation” from its basic science departments.

The division will maintain and expand current facilities for clinical trials at the Medical Campus and help develop new resources for clinical research, including small-scale genetic sequencing facilities.

Another primary mission will be to increase medical students’ exposure to clinical trials, ensuring that future generations of researchers are well versed in translating basic research into clinical advances.

“We’ll be expanding coursework relevant to clinical research, including disciplines such as biostatistics, clinical trial design and clinical epidemiology,” Polonsky said. “We’ll also be expanding the opportunities for clinical fellows, residents and medical students to obtain hands-on research experience in the laboratories of faculty who are doing clinical investigations.”