Preparing for the BIOlympics
Nearly everything about MCB’s 2004 Research Retreat was new, as an unprecedented 230 participants met for the first time at Ocean Edge Resort in Brewster. Held October 15- 17, the event drew MCB members as well as representatives of other FAS biology departments, who all caught glimpses of new research and fresh looks at old perplexing questions. In all, eighteen department faculty lectured briefly about their latest research, and graduate students and post-doctoral fellows presented 64 abstracts during poster sessions. In addition, four graduate students received awards, and two keynote speakers offered radically different perspectives on contemporary biology.
Even the diversions were novel this year. Second-year graduate students introduced a new sporting event on the resort’s windswept lawn, the BIOlympics, offering a series of competitions involving strange and ingenious uses for latex gloves, pipettes, and other commonplace objects. One tradition was perpetuated, though: as always, the faculty volleyball team was victorious over the first-year graduate students. (Is the call of “Wait till next year!” moving from Fenway to Brewster?)
Podium presentations spotlighted the breadth of MCB research, said Department Chairman Andrew Murray. In some cases, research is focusing on “who the players are” before a biological process can be understood. Presentations of Professors Craig Hunter and Sam Kunes exemplified this kind of quest. Hunter is uncovering specific mechanisms that allow RNAi effects to spread from cell to cell, while Kunes is inventorying molecules that control olfactory learning in Drosophila.
Murray noted that other researchers, who know the “line-up” in their research areas, are elucidating “the rules of the game.” One of nature’s most complicated games is sex, which was the topic of presentations by Professors Matthew Meselson and Catherine Dulac, and by Murray himself. Meselson created considerable buzz by confronting a fundamental question —”Why does sexual reproduction exist?” —and offering new evidence that its major utility may be fighting the build-up of retrotransposons, so-called “selfish DNA.”
Saturday evening banquet speaker, Martin Nowak, Professor of Mathematics and Biology, Harvard
Cell-fate determination is another venerable question tackled by featured speakers, including Professor Richard Losick and Assistant Professor Nicole Francis. Losick previewed evidence that the tipping point in Bacillus subtilis spore formation is a specific transcription factor, while Francis, a new MCB junior faculty member, described her research in epigenetic factors affecting cell differentiation in Drosophila.
Several talks focused on nervous system development, including those by two other recently arrived faculty, Professors Jeff Lichtman and Josh Sanes, as well as Alexander Schier of the Skirball Institute in New York (who will join the MCB faculty in 2005). Lichtman and Sanes covered the yin and yang of neuromuscular synapses, dealing respectively with their loss and formation in mice; Schier used zebrafish to show how trigeminal nerves establish sensory fields in the face. All three lectures featured remarkable images of axon arbors that mirrored the shapes and colors of autumn on Cape Cod.
The work of Professors Jack Strominger and Douglas Melton extends toward the clinical end of the MCB research spectrum. Using mouse models for multiple sclerosis, Strominger has been able to alter the structure of an established MS treatment—known to be safe but not very effective—so that it blocks disease onset in the animals. Melton is working to apply basic findings about the embryonic origins of pancreatic beta islet cells to donor stem cells, ultimately transforming them into insulin-producing cells that can be transplanted into juvenile diabetes patients. At this point he is not optimistic that adult stem cells can be reprogrammed for this purpose, and his team is using a mouse model to explore whether embryonic stem cells may be more amenable.
The connection between basic science and clinical medicine took center stage on Friday evening, when the keynote speaker was developmental biologist Mark Fishman, a former Harvard Medical School professor who is now president of the Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge. The productivity of “Big Pharma” companies is low, Fishman said, with only about 20 new drugs approved annually by the Food and Drug Administration and only about three of these being truly novel agents. The astronomical costs of bringing a drug from bench to bedside means that companies cannot afford to be interested in “niche” medicines tailored for small numbers of patients.
The good news, in his view, is that new trends in academic biology can shake this up. The key is organizing drug discovery around pathways, instead of whole organs or single genes or proteins. Probing pathways will yield more potential drug targets and set the stage for screening large numbers of chemical compounds, Fishman said. He predicts that the concept of a “niche” medicine could become obsolete, if research shows that the same pathway is a common feature of many tumors, autoimmune disorders, or seemingly unrelated diseases.
Awards recipients and presenters
On Saturday night, MCB honored some of biology’s rising stars. Robert Gould, Vice President, Licensing and External Research, Merck, Boston, presented the Merck-Wiley Awards to fourth-year graduate students Jessica Gray and Hayan Yoon. Gray studies regulation and control of photoreceptor neurons in Drosophila in the Kunes lab. Yoon is a student in the Dulac lab, where she visualizes complex neuronal circuits using pseudorabies viruses that express fluorescent proteins. Professor Melton presented the Peralta Prize, given in memory of the late Professor Ernie Peralta of MCB, which recognizes the best research proposals presented by second-year graduate students during their qualifying exams. Ben de Bivort won for his novel ideas about testing the color preferences of flies, which he is pursuing in the Kunes lab.
Saturday night’s keynote was a provocative talk by Professor Martin Nowak, the biologist-turned-mathematician, who leads Harvard’s new Program for Evolutionary Dynamics. He used the classic “Prisoner’s Dilemma” game, where participants must choose whether to cooperate or compete, as a framework for discussing biological problems. In particular, he focused on scenarios that might explain how natural selection—which is based on competition—gives rise to cooperation in species such as social insects and Homo sapiens. He challenged molecular and cellular biologists to use mathematical formalism and evolutionary theory to frame experiments and interpret their results.
One of Nowak’s observations is that although humans compete, they also cooperate more than any other species. MCB Chair Murray lauded this trait in his closing remarks, when he exhorted participants to reflect on the fruitful and interesting conversations they’d enjoyed with people they had not met before the retreat. “We should carry that spirit back to Cambridge with us,” Murray said. With so many new paths of research opening and so many opportunities for collaboration, the prospects for that appear bright indeed.