Is there any Life in the Sciences?

Is there any Life in the Sciences?

by Alan Saltiel  
Mary Sue Coleman Director of the Life Sciences Institute

Last week I met somebody from outside the scientific and academic world. When she found out that I directed the Life Sciences Institute, she asked: "Oh, is there any life in the sciences?" Wow, what a question! She might have been referring to the cuts to public research funding, which we are beginning to feel acutely in these post-sequestration months, thinking about the decline in trust of scientists in some quarters, or worrying about "brain drain" and the next generation of scientists

I'm happy to report that, from my perspective, there is indeed quite a bit of life in the sciences. Although I certainly understand there are challenges, it seems that every week we have a new paper coming out in a high-profile journal, papers describing work that is not only at the cutting edge, but also often the collaborative efforts of several labs. And many of the recent publications have come from the labs of our young faculty. Just last week Yukiko Yamashita was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and the flexible financial support will enable her to pursue the essential scientific questions that have been central to her research: When stem cells divide, what determines which daughter cell will remain a stem cell and which will differentiate into another tissue type?

Maintaining a balance between stem and differentiating cell populations during so-called asymmetrical cell division is critical, because an excess of stem cells can lead to cancerous tumor growth, whereas too many differentiated cells can deplete the stem cell pool and reduce the capacity for tissue regeneration, a crucial problem in aging. Yamashita published her most recent findings in Nature.

And then there is Ken Inoki, a clinically trained nephrologist who is having a huge impact in basic science. His recent paper outlined the intricate relationships between the moving parts of cells that regulate energy storage and expenditure-insights that could lead to better treatments for obesity and metabolic disorders, and also help us understand what causes kidney complications in diabetes, Ken's clinical interest.

Another of our junior faculty members, Jiandie Lin, challenged a long-held belief that whitening of skeletal muscle in diabetes is harmful. In fact, he showed that the white muscle that increases with resistance training can help keep blood sugar in check. And the insights from the molecular pathways involved in this phenomenon and identified in the study may point the way to potential drug targets for obesity and diabetes.

A postdoc in David Ginsburg's lab, Xiao-Wei Chen, identified a new protein that interferes with the ability of the liver to remove cholesterol from the blood in mice. He found that mice with an inactive SEC24A gene develop normally, but with markedly reduced plasma cholesterol levels because their liver cells were not able to recruit and transport a critical regulator of low-density lipoprotein--LDL, the so-called "bad cholesterol." The Ginsburg lab's research points to a new area for study: perhaps future therapies could block the transport mechanism that allows the destructive protein to reach the LDL receptor.

And there are other signs of life in the LSI, especially at the boundaries of the disciplines. In June, we will host the 12th annual LSI Symposium, on epigenetics and RNA. When we held the first symposium in 2002, there wasn't a discipline called "epigenetics," even though scientists were pretty sure that there were other heritable phenomena operating beyond basic transcription. What was once somewhat peripheral to the study of DNA has now become an extremely exciting area of study in its own right. During "Exploring Epigenetics and RNA," speakers selected by faculty member John Kim and representing leaders in the field will present work from a range of perspectives.

Another field that was only just being recognized when the LSI was founded-but is now almost emblematic of interdisciplinary science-is chemical biology. This summer we will be welcoming Anna Mapp, a renowned professor of chemistry who joined U-M in 2000. Anna's interdisciplinary lab uses the tools of synthetic organic chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology to better understand how genes are regulated-work ultimately important to human health, since aberrant gene expression is linked to diseases such as cancer and diabetes. She is also the director of U-M's Program in Chemical Biology, and the program will be moving with her to the LSI.

The Program in Chemical Biology is an independent program leading to a Ph.D. degree, and is one of the largest of its kind in the U.S. The program involves faculty from several different departments and units across U-M, including chemistry, biological chemistry, medicinal chemistry, pharmacology and biophysics. Given its naturally interdisciplinary and collaborative nature, we think the program will fit in well at the LSI, and we are thrilled to mark the milestone of our first graduate program.

Together, these research and educational activities, many driven by our young faculty, express vividly our core values: excellence in basic science collaboration and innovation. The changes at the LSI also reflect the rapidly evolving nature of our world. We are able to adapt because of our size, our independence and the generous support of donors who understand the importance of scientific research--even when the impacts aren't immediate or obvious. If only the majority of our elected representatives could have the same vision and imagination.

Is there any life in the sciences? I think so. But despite our recent successes, it remains important for us to keep changing ahead of the curve, looking for new approaches to seemingly intractable problems and staying active in our efforts to educate young scientists and the public on the importance of what we are doing.

May 2013