BY RUTH SCHECHTER
As the Beckman Center kicks off its 10-year anniversary celebration this week with a symposium on molecular and genetic medicine, the center's longtime director looks back at the facility's development and progress.
Called the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine, the unique facility was created at Stanford in 1989 to initiate new approaches to medical investigation. "At the time, our goal was to focus on the molecular and genetic basis of disease as the starting point for new forms of medicine," said Paul Berg, PhD, the Robert W. and Vivian K. Cahill Professor and director of the Beckman Center. "New information with the potential for making an incredible impact on our understanding of human disease was emerging at a staggering rate. We wanted to improve the process by which studies at the most fundamental level could be translated into medical practice."
Medical Center leaders discussed the concept of creating an enterprise devoted to molecular and genetic medicine for several years before construction of the new center began. The real challenge, remembers Berg, was to collect in one place the basic and clinical scientists who could bridge the gap between the two components of medicine. This would enhance the likelihood that basic science discoveries would be applied as new approaches to the prevention and treatment of disease, a process known as translational medicine.
"We recruited some of the leading scientists in the country," said Berg, who received the Nobel Prize in 1980 for his work in recombinant DNA. "But for translational medicine to work, we needed to foster the efforts of the talented clinicians at Stanford who wanted to interact more closely with basic scientists."
The need for improved interactions led to the creation of the Program in Molecular and Genetic Medicine (PMGM). Today, the PMGM fosters projects in cell sciences, immunology and human genetics. The program includes more than 195 faculty participants whose research activities are dispersed among more than 30 departments and divisions throughout the School of Medicine and the School of Humanities and Sciences.
The PMGM encourages creative interactions through symposia, seminars and student training programs. Its advisory board allocates funds for faculty recruitment and for studies that take a molecular biology approach to clinical problems. Within the Beckman Center, shared research facilities provide PMGM members with the latest technologies in computing, cell sorting, DNA analysis, microscopy, image processing and microchemistry.
Today the Beckman Center houses about 45 faculty members from the departments of biochemistry, developmental biology and molecular and cellular physiology, and from the Howard Hughes Unit in molecular and genetic medicine. They include two Nobel laureates and 12 members of the National Academy of Sciences.
Beckman Center faculty members have been involved in many groundbreaking investigations over the past decade. Working at the genetic and molecular level, teams of researchers have:
- identified the gene that, when
mutated, induces basal cell carcinoma, one of the most common forms
- isolated a molecule that controls
the formation of new bone and cartilage;
- determined how the cells'
regulatory mechanisms affect drug delivery systems;
- clarified the role of myosin, a
protein that controls cell movements ranging from cell division to
- developed new methods for imaging
cell biological processes in living systems;
- pioneered a gene chip technology
that allows scientists to analyze up to 20,000 genes at a time;
- illustrated the importance of
nitric oxide's role in neural plasticity and memory; and
- determined the mechanisms of asymmetric cell division fundamental to development.
These efforts and many others by Beckman Center researchers have helped make great strides in understanding the basic mechanisms of human biology and disease. But according to Berg, these impressive contributions are only the beginning.
"Over the past 10 years, my aim has been to encourage excellence and to devise ways to enhance the culture of interdisciplinary collaborations at Stanford," said Berg. "The next step will be to consolidate this approach so that the end results of our collaborations exceed the sum of the individual efforts."
That challenge will be passed to Lucille Shapiro, PhD, the Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Professor. She has been named to replace Berg, who will step down from the post early next year.
Shapiro came to Stanford in 1989 to establish the Department of Developmental Biology in the Beckman Center, which she then chaired for eight years. "Molecular embryology was a new frontier when the department was first set up," she said. "The science of developmental biology was changing at a lightening speed. Genome sequences and imaging technology has advanced rapidly as well, so it has been possible to expand on the knowledge of the molecular mechanisms of development and regeneration into a universal approach to disease."
Shapiro and the 12 faculty members she recruited to the developmental biology department focus on studies to identify the genes critical for early development. Their work has led to promising collaborations among Stanford's developmental biologists and faculty members in clinical departments throughout the School of Medicine.
"The Beckman Center is not just a building, but a nucleus with branches radiating out across the University," said Shapiro. "I hope to help take the basic concept behind the Beckman Center to the next level, encouraging a program even broader than the PMGM that will allow interdisciplinary work among the schools within the University to thrive."
The center's 10th anniversary symposium will be held on Friday, April 30, from 8:45 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. in the Fairchild Auditorium.
Featured speakers include Nobel laureate David Baltimore, president of the California Institute of Technology; Philippa Marrack, Howard Hughes Investigator and head of the division of basic immunology at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center; Jeremy Nathans, Howard Hughes Investigator in the departments of molecular biology and genetics, neuroscience and ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins University; Stuart Schreiber, Howard Hughes Investigator and co-director of the Harvard Institute of Chemistry and Cell Biology; Shirley Tilghman, Howard Hughes Investigator, Howard A. Prior Professor of Life Sciences in the department of molecular biology at Princeton University, and adjunct professor of biochemistry at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School; Michael Brown, professor of molecular genetics and director of the MD/PhD program at the University of Texas Southwestern Center in Dallas; and Robert Weinberg, the Daniel K. Ludwig Professor for Cancer Research at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Berg will deliver opening and closing remarks.
The event, which also marks the
beginning of a year-long celebration of the medical school's move
from San Francisco to Palo Alto 40 years ago, is free and open to
the public. For more information or to register, contact Christina
Doering at 723-9145 or