Helen Piwnica-Worms named head of cell biology and physiology

Helen Piwnica-Worms, PhD, the Gerty T. Cori Professor, has been named head of the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Piwnica-Worms succeeds Philip Stahl, PhD, who has led the department since 1984. Larry J. Shapiro, MD, executive vice chancellor and dean of the School of Medicine, announced the appointment.


“Dr. Piwnica-Worms is recognized as a pioneer in her studies of the basic mechanisms that regulate cell division, but her leadership at Washington University has extended far beyond the lab,” Shapiro says. “She’s been very active in teaching, recruitment of faculty and in efforts to translate advances in basic research into improved patient care and diagnosis. She will continue and expand the tradition of excellence established by Dr. Stahl.”

Piwnica-Worms and Stahl are both prior recipients of the Carl and Gerty Cori Award, one of Washington University’s highest faculty honors.

“I am very proud of having recruited so many stellar faculty, like Helen Piwnica-Worms, some of whom have gone on to leadership positions,” says Stahl, the Edward Mallinckrodt Jr. Professor of Cell Biology and Physiology. “The faculty and our commitment to research and teaching have propelled us to a high national ranking.”

“I consider it a privilege to lead this outstanding department and to build on the extraordinary legacy of Dr. Phil Stahl,” Piwnica-Worms says. “The department will continue to build on its strength in discovery-based investigations focusing on key questions in cell biology and physiology. We are also committed to expanding our strong relationships with clinical colleagues at the medical school and engineering colleagues at the Danforth Campus.”

Piwnica-Worms’ goals for departmental development include prominent roles for two Biomed 21 research centers, the Bridging Research with Imaging, Genomics and High-Throughput (BRIGHT) Institute and the Center for the Investigation of Membrane Excitability Disorders (CIMED). The BRIGHT Institute is making state-of-the-art technology from a variety of fields available for study of the molecular roots of cancer, while CIMED is dedicated to the study of how flaws in cell structures called ion channels can contribute to cystic fibrosis, epilepsy, migraine, abnormal heart rhythm, type 2 diabetes and a range of other disorders.

“Imaging is going to be an important part of our mission,” Piwnica-Worms says. “We are looking forward to working with the basic science departments and the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology to provide the research community with imaging capabilities that bridge the spectrum of proteins, cells, animals and humans.”

Piwnica-Worms’ research has helped show how mechanisms known as checkpoints interface with the cell cycle machinery to delay the cell’s progress through its life stages. The delays provide cells with important opportunities to inspect their DNA for damage. If damage is detected, cells can attempt repairs or self-destruct to prevent that damage from leading to cancer.

Piwnica-Worms earned a doctorate at Duke University Medical School and did postdoctoral research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Prior to her appointment at Washington University in 1994, she held appointments at Tufts University School of Medicine, Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Hospital.

Piwnica-Worms has won national and international recognition for her scientific contributions. She was a recipient of the Spirit of Health Award for Cancer Research from the American Cancer Society. She has been elected to the board of directors of the American Association for Cancer Research, named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Academy of Science of St. Louis, and recently was named a research professor of the American Cancer Society.

At WUSTL, Piwnica-Worms has served on search committees for the heads of several medical school departments and on the Medical Science Training Program admission committee for nine years. She helped build the molecular oncology program at Washington University.

At the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine, she serves as associate director of basic science, co-leads the cell proliferation program and is a member of the executive committee and the cancer biology pathway selection committee.

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.