May 19, 2011

New Investments in Basic Discovery Science

by John Howser

As nationwide investments in discovery science are challenged by federal budget constraints, Vanderbilt is pushing forward with expanded investments in basic sciences, while at the same time finding ways to optimize organizational structures.

Basic science research and training are fundamental to Vanderbilt’s mission, and are the basis for game-changing advances in biomedical science and clinical practice. As discovery science is in constant evolution, across the country new academic departments are being formed in response to the rapid pace of change. Among these developments, basic, translational, and clinical sciences are aligning to allow closer collaboration among highly complementary disciplines.

As such, Vanderbilt’s Departments of Pathology, and Microbiology and Immunology, are merging into one department to be called Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology (PMI). Samuel Santoro, M.D., Ph.D., Dorothy B. and Theodore R. Austin Professor, will chair this merged department.

The formation of PMI will allow the institution to best leverage the unique strengths of both departments in basic discovery science, generating greater synergy for enhancing the stature of microbial pathogenesis and immunology research at VUMC while accelerating the ability to recruit additional faculty in these key disciplines. This reorganization will also allow Vanderbilt to take advantage of the strong national call for strengthening opportunities in translational science and to better steward institutional investment in faculty, fellows and students.

“In addition to enhancing our capacity to make investments that will nurture and accelerate scientific discovery in these disciplines, the merger of these departments allows closer alignment and collaboration between the faculty and students, and promises a more efficient and effective approach to translation of discoveries to practice,” said Jeff Balser, M.D. Ph.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of the School of Medicine.

As announced in January 2010, Jacek Hawiger, M.D., Ph.D., Louise B. McGavock Distinguished Professor and longtime chair of Microbiology and Immunology, is stepping down after two decades of leadership as the chair of the department, having overseen the career development of numerous successful faculty, expanded graduate student enrollment and grant funding. He will be devoting his efforts toward continuing his research and other ongoing collaborations.

“These organizational changes are the result of Vanderbilt’s commitment and ongoing strategic investment in the future of basic discovery sciences,” said Susan Wente, Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Research and senior associate dean for Biomedical Sciences. “Successful organizational structures evolve to capitalize on their strengths. This reorganization, a creative solution to leverage our strengths, will position us for continued high impact scientific discoveries. It is challenging, but exciting, to embrace these changes.”

The organizational structure of the new department will be developed collaboratively between the faculty of PMI and VUMC leadership. Instrumental to this development will be partnerships with other clinical and basic science departments and centers to best facilitate the expansion of microbiology and immunology disciplines across VUMC.

“I am honored and I am thrilled as chair of PMI to lead this exciting and ambitious expansion of fundamental discovery science in microbiology, immunology and related disciplines at Vanderbilt and to link it to new and existing translational programs. The time is right. We have a core of dedicated and talented faculty and trainees upon which we will build. Our institution and its senior leaders have made very substantial commitments to a shared vision of excellence,” Santoro said. “This is about more than just PMI, though. It is through partnerships with other departments and centers that we will achieve the level of excellence, depth and breadth to which we aspire. I look forward to the coming years.”

Institutional resources committed to PMI include a new Stahlman chair in Immunity and Infectious Diseases, extensive renovation and modernization of bench space within Medical Center North, and mechanisms to enhance training activities across basic and translational sciences.

Importantly, the existing doctoral programs in Microbiology and Immunology and Cellular and Molecular Pathology will remain distinct, but with both programs now reporting to the PMI chair.

In addition to the innovative changes to the departments of Pathology and Microbiology and Immunology, change is coming to other key departments.

Currently, national searches have been launched for new departmental chairs in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, led by Roger Cone, Ph.D., professor and chair of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, and the Department of Biochemistry, led by Larry Marnett, Ph.D., University Professor and Director of the Institute for Chemical Biology. Also, with the announcement earlier this year that Dan Masys, M.D., chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics (DBMI), is retiring at the end of the academic year, the search for a new chair of this department is well under way, led by Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D., professor of Biochemistry, and director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. In the interim, William Stead, M.D., associate vice chancellor for Health Affairs and chief Strategy and Information officer, will serve as the DBMI’s chair until a successor can be identified.

“These departments are, by objective measures, among the very best in the world. We are firmly committed to the recruitment of new leadership and faculty that will take each department to the next level,” Balser said.

Other recent investments in basic discovery sciences include the launch of the new Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery and more recently the new Genome Sciences Resource.

The Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery, announced in March, was created to accelerate research that may lead to new treatments for Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia and other disorders of the brain. The center will build on the successes of the Vanderbilt Program in Drug Discovery, established in 2003 by P. Jeffrey Conn, Ph.D., Lee E. Limbird Professor of Pharmacology. Conn co-directs the new center with Craig Lindsley, Ph.D., professor of Pharmacology and Chemistry, and principal investigator of the Specialized Chemistry Center for Accelerated Probe Development.

The new Genome Sciences Resource, led by interim director Mark Magnuson, M.D., director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology, professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics and professor of Cell and Developmental Biology, brings the DNA Sequencing Facility, the Functional Genomics Shared Resource and the Genome Technology Core under one roof. This new shared resource was announced in April.