The University Record, October 23, 2000

U-M’s Dixon, UCSD’s Emr to co-direct Institute

By Sally Pobojewski
News and Information Services

President Lee C. Bollinger announced Oct. 18 that he has selected two prominent scientists—a biochemist from the U-M and a cell biologist from the University of California, San Diego—to serve as lead scientists and co-directors of the Life Sciences Institute. The appointments were approved by the Regents at their Oct. 19–20 meeting.

Jack E. Dixon, currently the Minor J. Coon Professor of Biological Chemistry and chair of the Department of Biological Chemistry in the Medical School, will begin his new position on July 1, 2001, after completing his term as department chair.

Scott D. Emr, professor of cellular and molecular medicine in the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, will become co-director on July 1, 2002. Emr and Dixon will share administrative and management responsibilities for the Life Sciences Institute, while continuing to direct their own scientific research laboratories.

“We are very fortunate, indeed, to have as directors two great scientists who possess the personal qualities to attract and support other great scientists at our University,” Bollinger said. “They will be outstanding as scientific leaders and co-directors of the Institute, maintaining their own excellent research efforts while jointly building the new institute from the ground up.”

Currently under construction and scheduled for completion in spring 2003, the Institute building will contain laboratories and offices for 30 science faculty—jointly appointed in academic departments—plus postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and staff. Financial support for the Institute will come from externally sponsored research, private gifts and a $130 million fund established by the University. Anticipated construction costs for the 240,000-square-foot Institute building are $96 million. Of the total $226 million budgeted for construction and operations, $150 million came from the Health System, with the balance from other University sources.

“Today’s scientific advances take place on the edges of disciplines,” Dixon said. “We want to bring together people on the cutting edges of different fields to create something new and dynamic, which will be a catalyst for interaction between medicine, engineering and the life sciences on the U-M campus.”

“Our plan is to build a broad research program in chemical biology, genomics, proteomics, and molecular genetics where faculty can work at the interfaces between chemistry, biology, engineering and computer sciences,” Emr said. “We expect to hire faculty in areas that will complement the U-M’s existing research strengths. In addition, we hope to provide many opportunities for research sabbaticals and visiting scientist appointments.”

“The research programs of the Life Sciences Institute will utilize new technologies and computational methods to study genes, proteins and other molecules, and their roles in health and disease, with an eye toward clinical translation to achieve advances in medical care and public health,” said Gilbert S. Omenn, executive vice president for medical affairs. “These applications require attention to ethical and policy dimensions of medicine and public health, as well.”

A prominent cell biologist and molecular geneticist, Emr joined the School of Medicine at San Diego and was named a Howard Hughes investigator in 1991. He is vice chair and a member of the executive committee of the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program at UCSD. Emr’s research focuses on the structure and function of intracellular compartments that perform essential biochemical reactions all cells need to survive. His work has led to the discovery of components of the machinery that sorts and delivers proteins to these compartments. Prior to UCSD, Emr was on the faculty of the California Institute of Technology. He received his B.S. from the University of Rhode Island in 1976 and his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1981.

Dixon joined the U-M faculty in 1991, coming from Purdue University where he was the Harvey W. Wiley Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry. He served as chair of the faculty advisory committee for the Life Sciences Initiative. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he is a pioneer in research on the structure and function of the protein tyrosine phosphatases and their important role in cellular signaling. He also has made fundamental contributions to scientific understanding of hormone biosynthesis and processing. Dixon received a B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1966 and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1971.

The Life Sciences Institute will be deeply involved in the state’s Life Sciences Corridor—a $1 billion, 20-year project to invest in and promote life sciences research and business development, which is administered by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. Institute faculty will work closely with researchers at the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan State University, Wayne State University and Michigan companies on Corridor-sponsored projects that will advance life science, help enhance health care and foster economic development in Michigan. Graduate students and postdoctoral researchers trained at the Life Sciences Institute will help provide the skills and expertise needed by Michigan’s biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.

There also will be opportunities for U-M undergraduate students to work alongside Institute scientists in state-of-the-art laboratories, according to Dixon. “I learned how to do science by working in a laboratory at UCLA when I was an undergraduate,” Dixon said. “It was the defining moment of my undergraduate experience and one that I hope we can share with many U-M students.”

“The U-M is widely renowned as a leader in the integration of research and education and in the promotion of interdisciplinary work,” said Provost Nancy Cantor. “The Life Sciences Institute will help cement the ever-increasing number of linkages and collaborative activities that bring together faculty and students from across the University who seek to explore the scientific basis of life and the human and cultural impact of these new discoveries. The U-M is uniquely positioned to develop a research institute for the life sciences that exemplifies a multidisciplinary, multicultural, vertically integrative approach to the generation and sharing of knowledge.”

The Institute is a major component of the Life Sciences Initiative—a campuswide effort to coordinate and expand research and teaching in such rapidly expanding fields as genomics, chemical and structural biology, cognitive neuroscience, biomedical engineering, biocomplexity and bioinformatics, as well as other areas of study that are influenced by the life sciences.

Additional information on the Initiative and the Institute is on the Web at:

Jack E. Dixon,
co-director, Life Sciences Institute

Current position: Minor J. Coon Professor of Biological Chemistry and chair, Department of Biological Chemistry, U-M Medical School

Education: Postdoctoral, University of California, San Diego; Ph.D., (1971) University of California, Santa Barbara (zoology); B.A., (1966) University of California, Los Angeles (chemistry)

Honors and Awards: Member, National Academy of Sciences; Member, Institute of Medicine; Fellow, American Academy of Microbiology; Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences; 1999 U-M Henry Russel Lecturer; 1997 U-M Distinguished Faculty Lectureship Award; 1994 Michigan Scientist of the Year; Past-president, American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Personal: Married with two children

Research interests:

Dixon studies a family of enzymes called protein tyrosine phosphatases—biochemical “master control switches” that regulate virtually all activity in living cells. Phosphatases work with a closely related group of enzymes called kinases to turn cells on and off. This cellular activation-deactivation process is vital to a cell’s ability to respond to signals from its environment. To turn cellular activity on, a protein tyrosine kinase attaches a phosphate molecule to a specific amino acid in a cell. To turn cellular activity off, a protein tyrosine phosphatase removes the phosphate molecule.

For the past 11 years, Dixon and his research team have worked to identify and understand this family of phosphatase enzymes. Since then, they have identified 10 amino acids in the phosphatase enzyme that are key players in removing the phosphate on-switch from cells. They have discovered how bacteria responsible for the plague or “Black Death” use phosphatases as a lethal weapon to disable a cell’s natural immune response. In 1997, Dixon’s laboratory showed how loss of the tumor suppressor gene PTEN, which shares sequence identity with phosphatases, results in the development of cancer. Currently, Dixon is studying how phosphatase master switches control the guidance signal that leads to establishing a wiring diagram for the nervous system.

Scott D. Emr,
co-director, Life Sciences Institute

Current Position: Professor of Cellular and Molecular Medicine and Adjunct Professor of Biology, School of Medicine, University of California, San Diego, and Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Education: Postdoctoral, University of California, Berkeley (biochemistry and cell biology), Ph.D. (1981), Harvard University (microbiology and molecular genetics), B.S. (1976), University of Rhode Island (biology)

Honors and Awards: Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Fellow, American Academy of Microbiology; 1985–90 Presidential Young Investigator Award; 1984–87 Searle Scholar Award; 1981–83 Miller Research Institute Fellow, University of California, Berkeley

Personal: Married with two children

Research interests:

Emr’s research focuses on specialized compartments inside cells that perform essential biochemical reactions all cells need to survive. For the past 20 years, Emr and his research team have used single-cell yeast organisms as a model to identify and understand components of the machinery that sorts and delivers proteins and enzymes to these cellular compartments. Many of the proteins are in small membrane-enclosed carriers called vesicles.

Emr uses yeast in his research, because humans and yeast use a similar set of gene products to direct protein trafficking in cells, and because yeast is easy to manipulate genetically and biochemically. His lab has isolated many yeast mutants with genetic defects that affect the normal sorting and delivery of proteins to lysosomes—compartments inside cells that degrade and recycle cellular proteins. Understanding how this process works is of more than academic interest, because abnormal lysosome function can result in several fatal human diseases.

Using their genetic approach, Emr’s group has identified many new genes that direct these essential protein trafficking pathways, most of which have clear counterparts in humans. One set of genes discovered recently in Emr’s lab appears to turn off signals received by specific growth factor receptors at the cell’s surface. Activated receptors normally are transported in vesicles to the lysosome where they are inactivated and degraded. Defects in this process result in prolonged signaling by the growth factor receptors, which ultimately can lead to uncontrolled cell growth and tumor formation.