The University Record, May 20, 1998

Commission to explore future of life sciences at University

By Jane R. Elgass

The current state of the life sciences at the University, as well as the potential for new directions and collaborations, will be the focus of efforts of a new commission appointed by President Lee C. Bollinger.

"There are few areas of human knowledge more alive with discovery and creative energy than that commonly referred to as the life sciences," Bollinger said in announcing the 19-member Life Sciences Commission earlier this month. "They are in a period of remarkable intellectual growth and discovery, as well as increased public interest, benefit and support.

"The advance of human understanding of the world from the gene to the cell to the living organism has progressed rapidly and according to the simple logic of what can be understood next. At the same time, public awareness of the sometimes dazzling nature of the discoveries and of their potential to bring tangible benefits to human welfare, has begun to lift the gates that only a few years ago were being lowered on public and private funding. All in all," Bollinger noted, "we seem to be entering an era of significant exploration of life.

"The University," Bollinger said, "must be prepared to participate fully and preeminently in the exploration of this extraordinary advance of knowledge."

Interpretation of the massive amount of information coming out of the Human Genome Sequencing Project, for example, will involve the computer sciences, bioinformatics, and new ways of investigating the intersections of genetic and environmental factors before researchers can fully understand growth and development, cancer biology, the neurosciences, and the prevention of cardiovascular and other diseases.

U-M researchers are using fruit flies to study "master control" genes, which regulate embryonic development in animals. Much like the architect on a construction project, these genes coordinate the activity of other genes--turning them on and off at precise times and locations in a developing embryo. Found in all types of animals, from fruit flies to people, these genes evolved around 600 million years ago, and probably were responsible for the surge in evolutionary diversification occurring on Earth at that time.

Identifying the genetic cause of specific changes in an organism like fruit flies may help scientists understand how multiple gene interactions may make some people more susceptible to birth defects, heart disease, brain disorders or cancer.

Under the leadership of the executive vice president for medical affairs, Gilbert S. Omenn, the University already has committed substantial resources to support the expansion of work in biological sciences and biomedical applications and has recently established a Center for Gene Therapy and a Center for Organogenesis (the origin and development of organ systems). Each of these initiatives involves multiple units within the U-M.

The University also has initiated a special recruitment effort for the most sought-after young faculty and enhanced the first-year experience for students pursuing Ph.D. degrees in the biomedical sciences.

Appointment of the Commission marks the beginning of ongoing "creative brainstorming" about the life sciences programs at the U-M and how the University can build on its present expertise in the neurosciences, genetics, immunology and cell biology. Discussion will include the national interest in these fields with an eye to making the U-M one of the most outstanding academic centers for the study and application of the life sciences.

Members will be asked to recommend ways in which links can be developed among faculty already at the U-M, to identify areas on which to focus in faculty recruitment, and to assess the infrastructure and space needs of recommended initiatives.

The group will have close ties to the offices of the President, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs, and Vice President for Research. Its deliberations ultimately will affect activities as far-ranging as those undertaken by the Office of the Vice President for Research, the Vice President for Development and the initiative to develop a master plan for all elements of the Ann Arbor campus.

The Commission's members will consult widely with members of the U-M community to gather information, with resulting recommendations to be considered by the president, provost, executive vice president for medical affairs and the entire U-M community.

The group has been asked to submit its findings and recommendations by Nov. 1.

The Commission is co-chaired by Huda Akil, the Gardner C. Quarton Professor of Neurosciences, and William R. Roush, the Warner-Lambert/Parke-Davis Professor of Chemistry.

Other members are: Julian P. Adams, chair, Department of Biology; James Bardwell, assistant professor of biology; Sally Ann Camper, associate professor of human genetics and associate research scientist, Reproductive Sciences Program; Jack E. Dixon, the Minor J. Coon Professor of Biological Chemistry and chair, Department of Biological Chemistry; Kirk A. Frey, associate professor of internal medicine and of neurology and senior research scientist, Mental Health Research Institute; Gary D. Glick, associate professor of chemistry; John H. Holland, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and of psychology; George Kenyon, incoming dean (Sept. 1) of the College of Pharmacy; George W. Kling, associate professor of biology and assistant research scientist, Center for Great Lakes and Aquatic Sciences;

Michael Marletta, the John Gideon Searle Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and Pharmacognosy and professor of biological chemistry; Rowena G. Matthews, the G. Robert Greenberg Distinguished Professor of Biological Chemistry and chair and senior research scientist, Biophysics Research Division; James J. Mule, the Maude T. Lane Professor of Surgical Immunology and professor of surgery; Gary J. Nabel, the Henry Sewall Professor of Medicine and professor of internal medicine and of biological chemistry; Gabriel Nunez, associate professor of pathology; Matthew O'Donnell, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and of biomedical engineering; Christoph F. Schmidt, assistant professor of physics and research scientist, Biophysics Research Division; and Edward Smith, the Arthur W. Melton Collegiate Professor of Psychology and faculty associate, Research Center for Group Dynamics, Institute for Social Research.