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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University October 9, 2006 | Vol. 36 No. 6
JHM Centers to Speed Up Collaborations

Faculty-led initiative will advance complex work

By Audrey Huang
Johns Hopkins Medicine

The 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 advances."

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 research."

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 longevity.

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 degenerative diseases.

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 faulty transport.


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