Name change for School of Medicine department announced

The executive faculty of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis unanimously approved changing the name of the Department of Molecular Biology and Pharmacology to the Department of Developmental Biology. The change reflects a shift that has already occurred in the department’s research focus and coincides with the search for a department head.

“This is an exciting time for developmental biology as a science, and the change in departmental name reflects a commitment by the University and executive faculty to this area,” says Larry J. Shapiro, M.D., executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. “Understanding how organisms develop through the use of new tools and concepts that have become available over the past five to 10 years may revolutionize both how we think about human disease and how we treat it.”

Molecular biology historically refers to the understanding and manipulation of genes. Developmental biology studies how genes control the growth and differentiation of cells and the processes that give rise to tissues, organs and body shape. Broadly speaking, the field also entails genetic control of basic physiologic functions and their alteration during development as well as the process of aging. Physicians will increasingly be called upon to interpret such genetic information and understand the effect of genes on people’s health.

The department’s research links basic genetic information such as that provided by the human genome project to knowledge of what the genes do, according to interim department head David M. Ornitz, M.D., Ph.D., the Alumni Endowed Professor of Molecular Biology and Pharmacology. “You could imagine the genome as a book with a million words written in a language we don’t understand,” he says. “We are trying to translate that language into something biologically meaningful.”

The new departmental name reflects a change in research emphasis that happened gradually. “Over the last 15 years, the department has been recruiting researchers interested in embryonic development, aging, regenerative biology and physiology,” Ornitz says. “The department’s focus now encompasses an organism’s development throughout life — including the embryonic stage, the neonatal period and adulthood all the way through the aging process and death.”

The original Department of Pharmacology became the Department of Molecular Biology and Pharmacology in 1991 when Jeffrey I. Gordon, M.D., the Dr. Robert J. Glaser Distinguished University Professor of Molecular Biology and Pharmacology, was named department head. Gordon initiated the move toward developmental biology by recruiting eight new faculty members in that field over the years. Ornitz, Gordon’s first departmental recruit, became interim head in 2004 when Gordon was made director of the newly established Center for Genome Sciences at the School of Medicine.

The department retains the same faculty members after its name change, but additional faculty members are expected to be recruited in the future. Although the term pharmacology, the study of drugs and their interactions with the body, has been dropped from the departmental name, that will not affect the research or training the medical school offers in that field.

Herbert W. “Skip” Virgin, M.D., Ph.D., the Edward Mallinckrodt Professor and head of Pathology and Immunology, co-chairs with Shapiro the committee seeking a department head for developmental biology.

“The search committee is looking for a visionary scientist and effective leader with an interest in reaching out across departments and across schools to build the strongest possible program,” Virgin says. “The field of developmental biology has become a vital component of medical training. We already have a vibrant community of scientists with a strong interest in developmental biology, and we can look forward to building on this base to become world leaders in this area.”

Ornitz says that the department has and will continue to collaborate with many other University departments and become a focal point for fostering research in developmental biology. He explains that developmental biology has strong links to cancer biology because cancer often involves the unregulated reactivation of genes that were active during early development and to regenerative biology because the repair of damaged tissues and organs requires the controlled reactivation of developmental genes.

“The department will interact with many researchers throughout the University,” Ornitz says. “We will collaborate with researchers at the Siteman Cancer Center and with researchers in such diverse fields as genetics and genomics, birth defects, physiology, pathology, neurobiology, aging, imaging and bioengineering.”

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked fourth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

Siteman Cancer Center is the only federally-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center within a 240-mile radius of St. Louis. Siteman Cancer Center is composed of the combined cancer research and treatment programs of Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine. Siteman has satellite locations in West County and St. Peters, in addition to its full-service facility at Washington University Medical Center on South Kingshighway.