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Forging the path to regenerative medicine

Symposium kicks off institute
Ivy Foundation helps endow four professorships

By Fariss Samarrai

Imagine growing healthy new tissue to replace diseased or damaged parts of your body.

Sound futuristic?

Maybe, but the science for such a scenario was being presented at the inaugural symposium of U.Va.’s new Morphogenesis and Regenerative Medicine Institute last week, which brought together some of the top researchers in the field — including a Nobel laureate. The event was kick-started by the announcement of a $3 million Ivy Foundation gift to endow four new chairs at the institute.

“This is a momentous occasion,” said Vice President and Provost Gene Block. “The Ivy Foundation is giving us the start we need.”

U.Va. created the Morphogenesis and Regenerative Medicine Institute to unify and integrate its strong research programs in cell biology, genetics and biomedical engineering. The goal is to create a world-class, multidisciplinary research institute engaging in cutting-edge areas of basic and medical research.

Morphogenesis is the process by which cells differentiate into tissues, and tissues develop structures to form organs. Understanding these processes is one of the most difficult problems in the biological sciences.

Regenerative medicine is a promising branch of medicine in which diseases are treated with therapies that directly target developing cells and tissues. Scientific study of morphogenesis is expected to lead to regenerative therapies to help prevent birth defects, control abnormal tissue growth such as tumors, and to repair or slow the damage of tissues from aging, disease or injury. It may even lead to the ability to produce replacement tissues and organs for transplantation.

Eric Wieschaus, professor of molecular biology at Princeton University and winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine, gave the symposium’s keynote talk May 19. He discussed the science of trying to understand how cells organize to form tissues and organs.

The Morphogenesis and Regenerative Medicine Institute is directed by Barry Gumbiner, chairman of the Department of Cell Biology and a leader in the field of morphogenesis research. He came to the University a year ago to open the institute.

He said the institute will expand on the current revolution in genetics, genomics, and molecular and cell biology with a goal to discover the basic principles underlying the ways in which cells form, organize, maintain, regenerate and repair the three-dimensional structures of tissues and organs.

“We have the chance to be among the best in the world in these fields,” Gumbiner said. “The challenge is to do it faster than other institutions.”

He said that by working from an already solid base, and being “forward-thinking,” the institute is poised to “take the lead.” The University will begin recruiting the chaired faculty this summer, he said, with the aim of having them at the University by the fall. He said he expects the institute to have a significant effect on the practice of innovative medicine, and will develop educational and training programs for outstanding young scientists and physicians.

Block recognized Gumbiner for “doing a remarkable job of taking us to where we are today. He is building a team of people who are fun to work with and who have a dream.”


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