Department of Developmental Biology is newly named

The School of Medicine’s Department of Molecular Biology and Pharmacology has changed its name to the Department of Developmental Biology, as unanimously approved by the executive faculty. 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,” said 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.”

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 Developmental Biology.

“You could imagine the genome as a book with a million words written in a language we don’t understand,” he said. “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 said. “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 Developmental Biology, was named department head. Gordon initiated the move toward developmental biology by recruiting eight new faculty members in that field. Ornitz, Gordon’s first departmental recruit, became interim head in 2004 when Gordon was made director of the newly established Center for Genome Sciences.

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 the Department of Pathology and Immunology, co-chairs with Shapiro the committee seeking a department head for developmental biology.