December 6, 2002

Medical Center, University bond to strengthen chemical biology

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Lawrence Marnett, Ph.D. will direct the institute.

Medical Center, University bond to strengthen chemical biology

An initiative aimed at consolidating the research efforts of chemists and biologists from across the university has congealed in the new Vanderbilt Institute of Chemical Biology. The institute, which was launched in July and is now in nearly final form, has as its mission to stimulate through research and education programs the application of chemical tools to the solution of important biological problems.

The institute is under the guardianship of Lawrence J. Marnett, Ph.D., professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry, who stepped down from his previous role as associate director for research programs at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center to shape the vanguard effort. Marnett, who will remain as Mary Geddes Stahlman Professor of Cancer Research and director of VICC’s A.B. Hancock Jr. Memorial Laboratory, views the directorship as an exciting challenge, as well as a chance to deepen his research roots.

“I feel fortunate to have been at Vanderbilt for 13 years,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful place for me to do research, and I’ve had the opportunity to participate in building one of the very best cancer centers in the country. I hope I’ve learned a little bit under Hal Moses’ leadership about what it takes to put these things together.

“It’s not an easy thing,” he continued, “but it’s extremely gratifying to get people working together who have not thought about it before. There’s an opportunity here to create something that will be unique and very strong and world-class, and that’s very attractive to try to do.”

The VICB is one of several initiatives funded by the Academic Venture Capital Fund, an internal grant program designed to give a boost to areas of trans-institutional research judged to have the potential to evolve into self-supporting programs of national stature. The funding is for a five-year period.

“The Institute of Chemical Biology is one of the very best examples of the type of program that could only happen as a result of the Academic Venture Capital Fund,” said Dr. Steven G. Gabbe, dean of the School of Medicine. “It is truly a trans-institutional effort that will create a new environment for science, one that has the potential to benefit not only the spectrum of people who train there, but also society because of the therapeutic compounds that will be developed.”

Establishing a chemical biology program at Vanderbilt now is extremely timely, Marnett said. The great advances in chemical technologies made over the last decade facilitate finer inspection of molecular structure, and allow for synthesis or analysis of thousands of compounds in a single afternoon. Such powerful tools can be useful in defining how molecules work with each other to effect biological responses. With that knowledge, chemists can design other molecules that inhibit or stimulate those responses, leading to new drugs that prevent or treat disease.

Marnett sees the disease-based centers on campus, such as the Diabetes Center and the Cancer Center, as natural places to apply chemical approaches to discovery of novel therapeutics, diagnostic agents, or preventive agents. He also hopes to leverage intellectually and financially with other basic science initiatives on campus, such as the Center for Structural Biology and the emerging foci of proteomics researchers.

“I think if you look at the whole landscape, Vanderbilt is investing very cleverly for the future,” he said. “I have to commend the leadership of the institution for having the vision and wisdom to do this, because in tough (financial) times the natural tendency of most institutions is to pull back. This is a well-led institution, and that’s a fact recognized around the country.”

“I think what’s particularly important about this venture is the fact that there are few institutions, Harvard being the best known, having a clearly established institute for chemical biology,” said Michael R. Waterman, Ph.D., Nathalie Overall Warren Distinguished Chair and professor of Biochemistry. “We will be one of the few, and it’s very clear to me that we will be one of the best.”

Creation of the VICB has been the shared vision of Marnett and Ned A. Porter, Ph.D., Stevenson Professor of Chemistry and associate director of the institute, who moved to Vanderbilt from Duke University five years ago.

“I was at Duke for 29 years before I came to Vanderbilt, so I know what goes on at other institutions,” he said. “And Vanderbilt is unusual in the very strong scientific interactions between individual faculty members. It makes sense to make use of those ties to further develop science at this interface of chemistry and biology and medicine.”

Marnett was Porter’s first graduate student at Duke some 33 years ago, and the two have built, over time, a lasting relationship of mutual respect.

“We’ve known each other a long time and trusted each other,” said Porter. “Now we’re working with each other across this divide that in some places is one that is never crossed, because of distrust or other historical reasons. I’m very enthusiastic about it, and very pleased that the institution recognized the potential for this development.”

Approximately 40 faculty members, equally representing the Arts and Science campus and the Medical Center, currently belong to the VICB. The goal is to hire at least 10 new faculty members over a five-year period. The first two recruits will be in Chemistry, Marnett said, since space is currently available there and interest from David M. Hercules, Ph.D., chair of the department, and Richard C. McCarty, Ph.D., dean of the College of Arts and Science, is particularly strong.

“This institute capitalizes on the close proximity of the Stevenson Center to the Medical Center,” said McCarty,” and formalizes the many well-established collaborations between faculty members in the Medical Center and the department of Chemistry. With the exceptional leadership of Larry Marnett and Ned Porter and a talented group of investigators already in place, there is no doubt that VICB will soon be recognized as one of the premier research and training programs of its kind in the nation.”

Joint recruitments with departments on both sides of the campus are also being actively pursued. In fact, one such faculty member has already arrived at Vanderbilt. H. Alex Brown, Ph.D., associate professor of Pharmacology and newly named Ingram Associate Professor of Cancer Research, was recruited with shared resources from Pharmacology, the Cancer Center, and the VICB.

A second goal of the institute is to recruit graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to the chemical biology program. To that end, funding has been earmarked to provide fellowships to first-year graduate students. A NIH-funded training program for support of second- and third-year students is already in place, thanks to the efforts of Porter and Richard N. Armstrong, Ph.D., professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry.

“Ultimately, graduate students and post-docs represent the legacy of what we do,” said Marnett. “So we want to recruit the best students we can, train them well, and have them assume leadership positions elsewhere.”

The institute co-sponsored a fall seminar series with Biochemistry and Chemistry, and will begin their own seminar program in January. In addition, the institute has plans to put in place a core facility for high-throughput screening assays of compounds and biologicals, which could be integral to translating laboratory discoveries into useful drugs. Having access to such a facility is very intriguing, said Heidi E. Hamm, Ph.D., Earl Sutherland Professor and Chair of Pharmacology.

“Vanderbilt researchers will be able to screen small molecule libraries and come up with inhibitors of the biological processes they study that represent possible lead compounds that could be used as drugs in the future,” she said. “We’d be able to capitalize…on these discoveries by patenting these compounds and establishing partnerships with biotech or drug companies.”