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Physician Scientist Robert Darnell Named Scientific Director of New York Genome Center

By Kevin Davies 

November 28, 2012 | It took the better part of a year for the New York Genome Center (NYGC) to identify and recruit its first scientific director, but the search is finally over. The NYGC has appointed Robert Darnell, a Rockefeller University physician-scientist and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigator, as president and scientific director.

The son of renowned cell biologist and Lasker Award winner James Darnell, Robert Darnell will lead the scientific and research activities at NYGC, as well as oversee development of the center’s growing research and medical talent.

Founding executive director Nancy Kelley expressed delight with Darnell’s appointment and his credentials as a physician-scientist. “From the beginning, bridging the bench to bedside was one of the primary goals in launching the center,” Kelley told Bio-IT World. “Having a physician researcher of the caliber of Bob Darnell, with his accomplishments, was to me the most important criterion.”

Kelley acknowledges that the search committee initially focused on external candidates, but says she was “delighted that the search committee found someone right in our own backyard.” In the end, that probably wasn’t the right fit for NYGC, she says. “Bob knows New York, he knows our Institutional Founding Members, and he understands high-caliber clinical care.”

The original notion of hiring someone from outside New York wasn’t necessarily a bad one, “but in some ways that was the wrong idea,” Darnell told Bio-IT World. “We’re talking about a consortium that’s never been done before. This is going to be the new Manhattan Project! This will involve a new generation of clinical medicine with science and computers all fitting together. It’s never been done, and here it’s being done as a consortium of all the major institutions in New York. Trying to pull that together might in fact need a New Yorker!”

Darnell says his clinical experience will prove instrumental in shaping the NYGC, citing the struggles and challenges his own lab has faced over the years in harnessing next-gen sequencing data as a microcosm for other investigators in the New York region and in the community at large. His goal is to build a world-class facility for personalized medicine and clinical genomics, but “to do it at a level that is not just the simple, straightforward, trivial, but do it in a way that is deep and sets the standards going forward for how this should be done.”

The complete Bio-IT World interview with Robert Darnell is here.

Uniquely QualifiedDarnell had been advising the NYGC as a member of its founding executive committee, will also join the NYGC Board of Directors. He will retain his wet lab at the Rockefeller University while moving his bioinformatics and genomics lab members to the NYGC when it opens in the Spring of 2013.

Darnell is a neuro-oncologist by training whose research has focused on a rare autoimmune brain disease called paraneoplastic neurlogic disorders (PNDs). Ironically, this research into a set of obscure autoimmune disorders has led him back into the RNA arena associated with his father. Darnell’s group invented the HITS-CLIP method to study RNA regulation in vivo. His studies of mRNA splicing, translation, and miRNA regulation in clinical and experimental settings are pointing to new ways to explore the so-called “dark matter” of the human genome.

The new appointment has drawn enthusiastic responses from some of New York’s scientific elite and key players in the genesis of NYGC. Columbia University professor and NYGC board member Tom Maniatis said: “The rate-limiting step in fulfilling the promise of genomics is extracting meaningful biological insights and clinically actionable information from massive genomic data sets. Bob Darnell is uniquely qualified as a leader, scientist and clinician to place NYGC at the forefront of solving this problem.”

Rockefeller president Marc Tessier-Lavigne said that “having worked closely with Bob since I came to Rockefeller, I can attest to his exceptional scientific integrity, outstanding leadership and passion for his work.”

Russ Carson, co-chair of the Board of NYGC, said that executive director Kelley would play “an expanded role in delivering this important science to clients worldwide.” Kelley says that, “NYGC will be one of the world’s largest genomic centers, combining innovative thinking, leading edge technology and an entrepreneurial spirit. I look forward to working with Bob more closely as we create a new model for research and scientific discovery.”

Darnell will remain a professor of cancer biology at Rockefeller University, as well as an Investigator with HHMI, which he joined in 2002, one of only a dozen appointees (and the only person in the New York area) in a nationwide search for physician scientists. He has close ties with several founding members of the NYGC: he is an attending physician at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, an alumnus of Columbia University, and trained at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the Weill Cornell Medical College.

Over the next five years, Darnell and Kelley aim to create more than 500 science-related jobs, most of which will be in basic and clinical research, integrating bioinformatics, computational biology and next-gen sequencing. Darnell says he will be “the nidus” for recruiting the research faculty of the NYGC. “The task of how to do the next generation of genomics and apply it to clinical problems [is] a research problem,” he says. “It can’t be done by a computational scientist alone, or a clinician, or a classical genomicist alone.”

Shuttling the five miles between the Rockefeller Hospital and NYGC’s future home in the SoHo district of Manhattan shouldn’t prove too daunting. Darnell placed in the top ten in his age group in the 2012 New York City triathlon.  

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