Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences at the Johns
Hopkins School of Medicine has formally established eight
research centers to collectively tackle such complicated
questions in biology as the genetic roots of obesity and
the relationships among the five senses.
"Over the past decade, advances in molecular biology,
genetics and instrumentation have made it possible to
address complex questions that until recently seemed quite
out of reach," said Stephen Desiderio, professor of
molecular biology and genetics and director of the
Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences. "By promoting
intensive collaboration and the development of new
technology, these new centers will empower scientists here
and elsewhere to address the challenges posed by these
The centers, described in detail below, will focus the
combined talents of about 30 laboratories and new
technologies on how living things receive and process
information from all five senses; how genetic information
outside the chromosomes is controlled and passed through
generations; and how cells coordinate their shape and
structure to either move or stay put, a critical element of
everything from normal development to cancer metastasis.
Traditionally, academic medical centers house clinical
researchers and basic science researchers separately, and
faculty are further divided and housed within separate
departments — "a balkanization that poses artificial
barriers to collaborative work," Desiderio said.
"In the new centers, those borders will be erased," he
said. "Many important, unsolved problems in biology and
medicine will clearly benefit from the integration of
diverse approaches, such as those employed in chemistry,
genetics, computational sciences, cell biology and clinical
Noting that the collaborative centers are "the product
of a grass-roots effort by the faculty," Desiderio lauds
his colleagues for the "creativity, energy and vision that
they have brought to this adventure."
The Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences centers at
Hopkins are as follows:
High Throughput Biology
Center. The first of the centers, the High
Throughput Biology Center was established over a year ago.
High throughput biology involves doing large-scale
experiments, testing or examining often hundreds if not
thousands of samples at one time. High throughput
approaches take advantage of a number of disciplines,
including biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics,
computer science and engineering, which come together to
build equipment, design experiments and analyze data.
Research at this center focuses on how cells and whole
organisms are structured and how they control the chemical
reactions and other molecular interactions required for
them to function.
Center for Epigenetics. The
sequence of the human genome contains the genetic blueprint
— instructions for life. How genes are controlled,
however, is not entirely contained in the sequence itself.
Instead, it has become increasingly clear that the control
of genes often lies outside of DNA sequence, either in the
form of chemical tags to the DNA or proteins that bind to
DNA. The field of epigenetics aims to understand how cells
establish and maintain these controls and what happens when
cells lose this control. Epigenetics has been implicated in
a number of diseases such as Beckwith-Wiedemann and Rett
syndromes, as well as some neuropsychiatric diseases. The
center brings together experts studying a number of model
organisms from different disciplines, including
biochemistry, genetics, medicine and biostatistics.
Center for Sensory Biology.
Animals have developed intricately specialized systems to
receive, process and interpret information from the outside
world. Research to uncover the molecular players in these
systems has revealed that similar molecules and biochemical
pathways are involved in seemingly different functions such
as detecting light, seeing in color, tasting, smelling,
hearing, feeling and touch, and the ability to sense
temperature or pain. This center is the first and only one
of its kind to combine the expert study of all five senses
in one location.
Center for Metabolism and
Obesity Research. This center will focus on three
themes that will lead to advances in two of the most urgent
global health problems, obesity and diabetes. Researchers
will study how cells use sugars and fats to build molecules
required for survival, how cells regulate the conversion of
food into energy and how the body regulates levels of
hormones and other chemicals in response to available
nutrients. The research will focus on metabolism at a
cellular level, looking at factors influencing cell
survival, growth and aging. At the level of the whole
organism, the center will address how nutrients, hormone
levels and energy usage affect reproduction, exercise
capacity, cognitive function, feeding behaviors and
Center for Cell Dynamics.
Cells are incredibly complex in how some retain their
shapes to provide structure to certain tissues or organs,
like skin, for example; or how others change shape to crawl
around, which is characteristic of metastatic cancer cells.
These functions require tens of thousands of biochemical
reactions every second in living cells. To really
understand molecular events underlying cell behaviors like
the spread of cancer via metastasis, researchers must
observe these biochemical reactions in living cells in real
time, which is not possible with currently available tools.
This center will develop new technologies such as
biosensors, microscopes and computer programs to help
visualize how cells divide and move. As a result,
researchers will be able to better understand how cells
control their behaviors and potentially develop new classes
of diagnostics for cancer or other diseases.
Center on Drug Addiction.
Drug addiction — the compulsive drive to take
drugs — is a considerable public health problem. An
unsolved mystery in biology is how brief exposure to
certain stimuli — like drugs of abuse — can
generate long-lasting, sometimes lifelong, changes in
behaviors such as learning and memory. In fact, learning,
memory and addiction share similarities in that each
depends on experience. Repeated experience causes nerve
cells to change in ways that are not well understood. In an
effort to better understand addictive behavior and
ultimately combat addiction, this center will bring
together clinicians who work with addiction,
neuroscientists who study how nerve cells communicate with
each other and molecular biologists who study the molecules
used by nerve cells to alter how the cells behave.
Center for Chemoprotection.
An aging population combined with major recent
successes in controlling cardiovascular diseases is
dramatically shifting the pattern of human diseases toward
dominance by cancer and chronic degenerative conditions.
Recent research has shown that molecules found in many
edible plants have detoxifying properties that may
counteract inflammation and other cellular stress that
contribute to the spread of cancer and degenerative
conditions. To investigate new ways to reduce cancer risk
and disabilities associated with aging, this center brings
together scientists who study molecular pathways that
signal, respond to and prevent toxicity, and researchers
who study animal and human models of cancer and chronic
Center for Transport Biology
and Medicine. We learn in grade school that the human
body is more than 60 percent water, yet how does that water
stay contained, and how is it transported properly within
the body? The study of transport biology focuses on the
movement of water and salts into and out of cells. Failure
to properly regulate transport of water and salts can lead
to diseases like cystic fibrosis, or other medical
conditions like hypertension or diarrhea. This center will
integrate genetics and clinical and basic sciences to study
how molecules involved in transport affect the function of
the lung, kidney and gastrointestinal tract, for example.
One main focus of the center will be the discovery of new
drug and gene therapies to treat conditions arising from