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First Base

By Kevin Davies

Kevin Davies, Ph.D.Editor-in-ChiefAugust 13, 2002 | Under the assured leadership of Nobel Laureate Tom Cech, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) is increasingly applying its considerable resources to foster imaginative, interdisciplinary biomedical research and education. The most recent example is last month's decision to furnish 44research universities with $80 million for the creation of undergraduate training programs reflecting the rapidly evolving, interdisciplinary nature of modern biomedical research.

"Biology is progressing so rapidly and interfacing with so many other disciplines that undergraduate teaching runs the risk of substituting quantity for quality," says Cech. "Through these grants, the institute is providing resources to help universities bring their undergraduate science teaching up to the level of their research programs."

The new program strives to encourage graduate students and postdoctoral fellows — the future faculty of our universities — to hone their teaching skills, and attract minorities into the life sciences (a long-standing HHMI priority). It will also give rise to new, forward-looking courses, for example:

  • At Princeton University, a course in molecular biology is being designed to introduce undergraduates in mathematics, physics, and engineering to quantitative thinking in biology, with emphasis on data interpretation using mathematical modeling.

  • Stanford University will develop interactive, Web-based virtual laboratories in genetics, molecular biology, and biochemistry, and make six older Web-based physiology units available to the public.

  • In addition to creating courses in bioinformatics and genomics for biology majors, New York University is revamping traditional math and computer science courses to embrace topics of biomedical relevance, including modeling and data analysis.

  • The University of Colorado at Boulder plans to establish the Genomics Teaching Place, a facility where teachers and students can learn about genomics, bioinformatics, and computational biology.

  • A new bioinformatics lab at the California Institute of Technology will underscore the "close conceptual linkage between protein structure determination and the prediction of biological function from DNA sequence."

The HHMI portfolio has suffered in recent years — its endowment currently stands at around $11 billion (exceeded only by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation among medical philanthropies), down a few billion from its peak two years ago. The institute is required to spend at least 3 percent of its assets annually, primarily by supporting more than 330 faculty scientists at 70 institutions around the country. These investigators are encouraged to pursue dynamic, even risky, research programs, with support guaranteed for several years at a time. Recognizing a dearth of top-quality physician scientists within its own ranks, HHMI recently appointed a dozen new clinically oriented investigators, including cancer researchers Brian Druker, Charles Sawyers, and Todd Golub (see Paper View).

Sowing the Seeds 
By far, the institute's most ambitious initiative to date is taking shape a few miles from Washington Dulles International Airport. Two years ago, HHMI bought a 300-acre complex in Virginia called Janelia Farm, which it is transforming into a state-of-the-art interdisciplinary research center, designed to house some 24 investigators spanning a variety of different fields, from physics and engineering to bioinformatics and traditional wet lab biology. Janelia Farm is set to open in 2005.

Under Cech's leadership, HHMI is also beginning to emerge from the broad shadow cast by the National Institutes of Health. Earlier this year, HHMI entered the controversial field of stem-cell research, providing funds for human stem-cell research by Doug Melton. Motivated by his son's diagnosis with diabetes, the Harvard University developmental biologist is seeking to identify the factors that trigger the development of insulin-secreting pancreatic beta cells. HHMI will provide Melton with access to frozen human embryos from Boston IVF in Waltham, Mass., a resource not available with federal funding.

These changes would no doubt have pleased the institute's former vice president and chief scientific officer, W. Maxwell Cowan, who passed away on June 30 at the age of 70. A hugely respected neurobiologist, Cowan played a vital role in establishing the institute's scientific excellence, democratizing the institute's investigator selection process and diversifying its research repertoire to embrace fields like structural and computational biology.

Kevin Davies

For reprints and/or copyright permission, please contact  Jay Mulhern, (781) 972-1359,