Nov. 8-21, 2002
Back Issues
Voters say yes!
Tuition surcharge set at $385
Headlines @ U.Va.
University’s highest honor is given to Childress

Marva Barnett wins Zintl Award

Computer classes buck trend
Cures to diseases lie in cells and genes
Tackling cells’ mysteries
Medical Center, School of Medicine lay out play for the next decade
Virtual mind
Major projects status report
Water levels up, usage down
Ashbery reads Nov. 21
Anthropologist Maurice Godelier to give lectures
Artists show “Wizdumb”
Focus on budget crisis
Barry Gumbiner
Photo by Tom Cogill
Barry Gumbiner to get new medical institute up and running.

Tackling cells’ mysteries

Gumbiner leading cutting-edge research

By Elizabeth Kiem

Since the second century, when the Roman Galen first asserted that the fibers of the body could be categorized, scientists have pondered how the body builds itself as it does: how the cells of our skin fall into layers, how our muscle cells are ordered to bundle and what directive gives our internal organs their distinctive shapes.

“It’s a very basic question,” said Barry Gumbiner, new chair of U.Va.’s department of cell biology. “How do you take the one-dimensional code of DNA and turn it into a three-dimensional form?

Why is the kidney shaped the way it is? Its pieces are tubular, while other parts of the body are sheets of cells and round balls or multi-layered. They are really simple questions in a way, but they’re still very big mysteries of biology and medicine.”

Gumbiner and other researchers in the make-up of cellular tissue call this science morphogenesis, from the roots meaning “to change in form or shape” and “to create.” While the study of cellular creationary code may seem esoteric, its application is one of the hottest pursuits in modern medicine. Gumbiner is organizing the University’s new Morphogenesis and Regenerative Medicine Institute.

“This is a chance for us to make a concerted effort to move into this cutting-edge field and really take the leadership role.”

Barry Gumbiner
chairman, department of cell biology

“The goal of regenerative medicine, to generate or repair tissues, has a long-term goal of being able to make artificial tissues and organs. More likely in the short term is figuring out ways to make the body regenerate tissues,” said Gumbiner.

tem-cell research, which has sparked as much controversy as hope, is an offshoot of regenerative medicine.

Gumbiner came to U.Va. in early June, enticed by the opportunity to help set up an institute devoted to morphogenesis and regenerative medicine. His previous research as a faculty section head at Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York was directed primarily at cancerous morphogenesis and cell adhesion – how cells adhere to each other to form an organ, and in the case of cancer cells, how they release and reattach themselves to spread the disease.

At U.Va., Gumbiner envisions a research body of as many as 40 investigators from multiple disciplines working together to understand tissue formation. Specialists in cell biology and genetics would join biomedical engineers, chemists in tissue engineering and physicians in a research building devoted solely to this field.

“My own work is only going to be a little part of it,” he said. “I see myself as a catalyst. The exciting thing here is that although there are people all over the world doing little bits of this, you can’t really point to one university that’s the leader. This is a chance for us to make a concerted effort to move into this cutting-edge field and really take the lead.”

In fact, the creation of such an institute was laid out as a priority for the Virginia 2020 initiative, involving many faculty and departments. Among them, Ariel Gomez of pediatrics, biology chairman Ray Keller, Tom Skalak of biomedical engineering and biology professor Rob Grainger lobbied strongly for its inclusion.

Gumbiner hopes to see the institute, which he will co-direct with Keller, settled in a new building in about five years. Because it will draw from and benefit three different schools (Medicine, Engineering and Arts & Sciences), the planning is coordinated by the offices of the provost and vice president for research and requires cross-Grounds cooperation.

Having studied and taught at the University of California at San Francisco (he received his Ph.D in neuroscience in 1982 and returned as an assistant professor in 1986), Gumbiner said he is wary about the inherent constraints of doing research at a public institution. Virginia’s current budget woes spiked shortly after he moved into Jordan Hall, forcing him to put his hiring plans on hold.

Also on hold are new building projects, although the upcoming bond referendum will provide an indication of how long Gumbiner may have to wait. In the meantime, he plans to embrace the fund-raising aspect of his new job, confident in the commitment to morphogenesis at U.Va.

“This is a long-term plan,” he said. “You don’t do it overnight. If you did, you would probably make a disaster of it.”


© Copyright 2002 by the Rector and Visitors
of the University of Virginia

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