The Johns Hopkins Gazette: December 11, 2000
December 11, 2000
VOL. 30, NO. 14


Institute On Fundamental Research Is Announced

By Marjorie Centofanti
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

The School of Medicine on Friday announced the formation of the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences. Uniting eight departments, several hundred scientists and initiating a $125 million funding campaign, the IBBS consolidates biomedical research and teaching in the basic sciences under a single umbrella. With a jump start of $30 million from a private donor, the move marks the largest single initiative for the basic science enterprise at Hopkins in the last 50 years.

"Basic research is the engine that drives medical advances," says Edward D. Miller, dean and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine. "In the post-genomic era we expect the pace of basic discovery to accelerate dramatically. Thus, it is vital that we significantly increase our investment in basic biomedical research. It is the foundation upon which our future is built."

"The last two decades have brought nothing less than a revolution in molecular biology--one that's vastly increased our understanding of basic biology while offering unprecedented opportunities to apply it," says Thomas J. Kelly, who is the institute's director. "The wealth of new human genome data and advances in biotechnology--such as 'high through-put' techniques that let biologists screen hundreds of molecules for a particular property in a single day--are blurring traditional boundaries of the basic sciences.

"Yet because science is changing, taking advantage of this opportunity calls for a retooling. The multidisciplinary approaches and high technology the new biology demands require a new scientific infrastructure. By enhancing resources for basic biomedical research we'll keep gifted faculty at science's leading edge," he adds.

The IBBS links the existing departments of Biological Chemistry, Biomedical Engineering, Biophysics and Biophysical Chemistry, Molecular Biology and Genetics, Molecular Cell Biology, Neuroscience, Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences, and Physiology on Hopkins' East Baltimore medical campus.

Sharing administration and facilities while maintaining individual departments will increase research efficiency, says Elias Zerhouni, executive vice dean. Also, by making collaboration easier, the move should foster a new synergy among basic science researchers, he adds.

Hopkins is the nation's largest recipient of biomedical research funding. Last year, its labs received more than $255 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health, with approximately $50 million going to researchers in the eight basic science departments.

Funding for the IBBS has come from a variety of sources, including Hopkins itself, state building allocations and private donations. One anonymous benefactor long associated with the medical school has committed $30 million. "We've long needed to make the basic sciences independent of funds related to patient care," the donor says. "A firm step in that direction is to develop an identity as an institute. This place was founded by giants and continues to recruit remarkable people," he adds, "particularly in the basic sciences."

Presently, the IBBS exists as an institute without walls, although Chi Dang, vice dean for research, envisions a new building containing dozens of laboratories, the institute 's administrative offices and new or expanded "core" research facilities shared by researchers throughout Hopkins.

The IBBS aims to attract respected researchers, especially those in four scientifically "hot" areas:

Computational biology --studies in which computers are harnessed to model biological processes ranging from action of individual molecules to the workings of entire organs.

Genomics --a field that compares information on the genetic makeup of humans and animals to identify genes and what controls them, as well as pinpoint mutations and other flaws in DNA.

Proteomics --a study in which scientists track genes' production of specific proteins and explain how those proteins are used. Proteomics will reveal the impact of mutations, environmental factors or diseases on cells, telling how such things perturb overall cell biology.

Small molecular probes --a field in which scientists develop synthetic molecules capable of interfering with a cell's biology. Such interference will help pinpoint biological pathways and processes with new ease and precision.

Departments within the IBBS have already set up certain shared, or core, facilities where researchers can, for example, get experimental molecules synthesized or materials analyzed with sophisticated technology. A multimillion dollar central microscopy center has operated for several years. Another core facility produces transgenic mice to order, and still another sequences DNA molecules. Hopkins has just opened a new center for mass spectrometry, a powerful method for analyzing molecular composition.

Keeping these core facilities state-of-the-art is constant work and a goal of the new institute. Developing new core facilities, such as one for high-density gene arrays--a way to observe the activity of large numbers of genes all at one time--is also well under way.

Institute planners have set a $65 million goal for endowment and program support in each of the basic science departments. The IBBS will endow chairs for key senior as well as junior faculty. Because the basis of future scientific research ultimately stems from training young scientists, the IBBS plans to support cross-departmental doctoral training programs while it steps up recruitment of the most promising students in this country and abroad.

Of all the medical schools in this country with associated basic science research, Hopkins has perhaps the longest-standing reputation. It was the first institution, in the late 1890s, to separate teacher-researchers from clinicians and offer them a salary for their work. Many of this country's first true basic scientists gathered at Hopkins then, eager to set up laboratories. William Henry Howell, for example, sparked physiology research and first laid down a clear explanation of blood clotting. John Jacob Abel is this country's father of pharmacology and was the first to isolate insulin in a pure form.

More recently, the work of Daniel Nathans and Hamilton Smith, who shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1978, led to the ongoing revolution in molecular biology and the new genome projects. From the earliest days, this fundamental research, marked more by curiosity than concern for quick application, has brought the greatest changes in science and medicine. "It exemplifies the mission of the new institute," Kelly says.

For the past 18 years, Kelly, a molecular biologist, has chaired the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics while conducting active research to clarify the mechanisms cells use to create DNA molecules. He's also focused on understanding what triggers that process as the entire cell prepares to divide.

Kelly received undergraduate and graduate degrees from Hopkins, and he graduated from medical school here. After postdoctoral work at Harvard and Hopkins and a short research appointment at NIH, Kelly returned to the School of Medicine to teach and conduct research in the Department of Microbiology. He was chosen to head Molecular Biology and Genetics in 1982, and presently holds an endowed chair as the department's Boury Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics.

As an author or co-author of nearly 100 scientific publications and a noted researcher in his field, Kelly was elected to the National Academy of Sciences as well as to the Institute of Medicine within the National Academy of Sciences, an honor reserved for this country's top scientists. His studies have been published in Science, Nature, Cell and The Journal of Molecular Biology, among others.

Kelly was selected by his basic sciences colleagues to be the first director.