Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has received a $10 million gift from the Harry Edison Foundation to support the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology. The gift is from the Edison family, St. Louisans who have been major supporters of the university for five decades. The gift will help to advance the center’s innovative research programs, including its substantial work in understanding the gut microbiome — the tens of trillions of microbes that colonize the human gut and impact numerous aspects of human health.
“We are deeply grateful for the Edison family’s extraordinary generosity,” said Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “This gift will serve as an important catalyst for the School of Medicine’s personalized medicine initiative. It will enhance our efforts to understand how our genetic differences affect our well-being and disease risk and empower a new generation of scientists to combat illnesses that affect millions.”
The university will rename the center the Edison Family Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology.
“We would like to express our deepest thanks to the Edison family for this extraordinary gift,” said David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. “The gift will support research at the newly named Edison Family Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology and, in particular, the work of Jeffrey Gordon, who has led the field in uncovering the vital role of gut microbes in shaping human health and disease.”
Jeffrey I. Gordon, MD, the Dr. Robert J. Glaser Distinguished University Professor, is the center’s director. Over the past 20 years, Gordon’s work has revolutionized the understanding of the microbes that colonize the human gut. His lab’s research has implicated the gut’s microbial community as playing a causal role in two of the world’s most vexing global health problems — obesity and childhood malnutrition.
In doing so, his lab and the labs of other faculty in the center have developed new experimental approaches and computational tools. By combining their resources to test their hypotheses in innovative and informative ways, these investigators have played important roles in founding and advancing the field of human microbiome research, including studies of the origins of antibiotic resistance and how to combat it, and of intestinal viruses that are common causes of diarrheal disease in children and adults worldwide.
“Our center is founded on the concept of educating a new generation of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who have hands-on access to high-end technology,” Gordon said. “Washington University is creating a new type of biological scientist — one that combines expertise in experimental biology, including the use of the very latest high-end instrumentation, and in the analysis of very large data sets. Combining these tools and expertise is necessary to make advances in personalized medicine.”
Another researcher in the center, Barak A. Cohen, PhD, the Alvin Goldfarb Distinguished Professor of Computational Biology, echoed Gordon’s sentiment.
“We’ve made a commitment to having the latest technologies that are available — the latest sequencing machines, the most up-to-date computer clusters, the most current microscopy platforms and so on,” Cohen said. “The Edison gift will support bringing these technologies in, so we can build on top of them, so that the center will be at the leading edge of what’s possible. We value innovation above just about everything else.”
Gordon’s research has shown that the gut’s microbial communities are a vital part of a child’s early development, influencing healthy growth. He and members of his lab have been able to study samples of gut microbial communities from children suffering from malnutrition. These studies, performed in animal models harboring human gut communities from healthy and malnourished Bangladeshi children, have led to the development of new foods designed to improve the representation and expressed beneficial functions of gut bacterial species important for healthy growth, including healthy muscle development, healthy development of bone, normal metabolic function and proper functioning of the immune system.
Based on his studies, Gordon and his colleagues at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Bangladesh have begun a clinical trial of next-generation microbiota-directed therapeutic foods in the Bangladeshi capital city of Dhaka. The hope is these foods can repair the immaturity of the microbial communities that are characteristic of children with chronic malnutrition, thereby spurring restoration of healthy growth and development in these children.
“As a doctoral student, to be able to participate in clinical research is exciting,” said Jeanette L. Gehrig, a graduate student in Gordon’s lab. “Foods that we have helped develop are being carefully studied in Bangladeshi children with moderate acute malnutrition to see if their abnormal microbial communities are repaired. Seeing this research come full circle from the lab to the clinic is wonderful.”
In giving this gift, Edison family member and university trustee Andrew Newman said the goal is to support the talented people at Washington University, especially in tackling major global health challenges.
“The Edison family greatly respects Dr. Gordon’s sound thinking and innovative research, particularly in the area of the gut microbiome,” Newman said. “His work has global importance and appears to be critical to helping malnourished children throughout the world.”
The Edison family has directed this gift from the Harry Edison Foundation, which was established in 1949 by Harry Edison, who, along with his four brothers, operated Edison Brothers Stores Inc. The Harry Edison Foundation has been a major supporter of the university over many decades.
The foundation’s first gift to the School of Medicine, made in 1967, established a professorship in surgery as a tribute to the foundation’s namesake. The foundation also established a second professorship — the Edison Professorship in Neurobiology — in 1977. Numerous other gifts have supported a variety of initiatives and programs at the School of Medicine, including diabetes research, stem cell and developmental biology research, and the construction of the Eric P. Newman Education Center, named in honor of Andrew Newman’s father, a 1935 graduate of Washington University’s School of Law and a nephew of Harry Edison.
Serving alongside Andrew and Eric Newman as trustees of the foundation when the gift was made earlier this year, on Feb. 22, were Harry Edison’s nephews Bernard and Julian Edison, the latter of whom passed away May 8. Members of the Edison family have provided significant personal support and leadership across the university for many years.