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Harvard Medical School Launches New Department To Study Human Biology At The Level Of Whole Systems

September 24, 2003
Harvard Medical School
Harvard Medical School is making a significant commitment to the emerging field of systems biology in announcing the creation of the Department of Systems Biology (DSB), one of the first department-level systems biology programs in the nation.

Boston, Mass. (Sept. 23, 2003) -- Harvard Medical School today makes a significant commitment to the emerging field of systems biology in announcing the creation of the Department of Systems Biology (DSB), one of the first department-level systems biology programs in the nation. Systems Biology seeks to build from our current knowledge of genetic and molecular function to an understanding of how a whole cell works as a system and from there to multi-cellular systems such as organs and whole animals. The Department of Systems Biology will be Harvard Medical School's first completely new department in more than two decades and, with more than 20 faculty recruitments expected, will be one of its largest departments.

A quantitative understanding of an entire subcellular, cellular, or organism system could dramatically speed drug discovery, by allowing one to predict the effects of attacking a specific target within the context of the complex cellular circuits. New drugs often fail after the expenditure of millions of dollars because the effect on a single gene or protein target in the test tube fails to have the predicted effect when tested in the human body.

"As we understand more about the tiniest pieces that we are made of, it becomes increasingly clear that we do not understand how they work together as systems," says Marc Kirschner, PhD, the first chair of the new department. "We need to build on the foundation of molecular biology to construct an understanding of the architecture of the cell and how cells cooperate across organ systems, with a predictive model of physiology as the ultimate goal."

"It is worrying that we do not understand how most drugs work and essential that we know in detail how both genetic mutations and the environment contribute to disease," says Dr. Joseph B. Martin, Dean, Harvard Medical School. "Answering such questions requires building predictive models of cells, organs, and ultimately, organisms. And this requires not only advanced computational models but the acquisition of new quantitative data, often with new methods capable of interrogating the activity of a large number of genes within whole cells or whole organisms. In evaluating this challenge, we reached the conclusion that the scale of the effort required demands a new department."

"This type of focused, department-based program will help to define and stimulate the exciting interdisciplinary field of systems biology, which needs strong leadership right now," said Dr. Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences and a member of the outside review panel that helped HMS decide on priority initiatives for the coming years. "Science often takes a giant leap forward when the right people are brought together to work on improving the methodologies and redefining the education and training needed in a promising new field. With the guidance provided by Marc Kirschner, one of the world's most innovative cell biologists and a proven builder of new departments, I would expect this new endeavor to have a profound impact on biology over the long term."

This department will consist of newly recruited faculty from areas such as mathematics, computer sciences, physics, and engineering, as well as from traditional biomedical fields--harnessing talent from broad disciplines that can develop the theoretical framework for complex systems biology problems. More than 20 full-time faculty will be recruited and the HMS Systems Biology Department will receive significant initial funding from Harvard University and Harvard Medical School. The new department will have special programs for the education of physical scientists in biology and special core facilities to promote interaction between disciplines.

In concentrating on education, the department will provide a learning environment to facilitate training the systems biologists of the future. "We hope this will become a model for other departments in medical schools and colleges across the country," said Dr. Martin. "Biologists will need broad training in quantitative science, and physical scientists need to be exposed to new approaches to biology that make use of their talents and experience." For this to work on a research level, physical and biological scientists should be in an environment where they not only pursue molecular approaches but also develop approaches that create predictive models of how systems work. The DSB will serve to facilitate those interactions.

While being interdisciplinary, DSB will also be inter-institutional, linking faculty from the Medical School with faculty at its affiliated hospitals and Harvard University. The department will seek joint appointments with hospital-based departments, and several members of the department are expected to be jointly appointed with the Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge. An explicit commitment has been made to both undergraduate and medical postgraduate education. We anticipate particularly strong links with the Bauer Center for Genomic Research at Harvard and we hope for strong collaborations with other efforts in the Boston area, such as MIT's Computational and Systems Biology initiative (CSBi)

This level of interdisciplinary and inter-institutional collaboration sets the HMS department apart from other efforts in the emerging field. Even within the HMS home Quadrangle, the new department will be physically adjacent to the Department of Neurobiology, which is also launching a parallel program in systems neuroscience. It is anticipated that the two departments will be recruiting some positions jointly.

"To realize the goal of systems biology, you need to attract top talent in many different fields and have these individuals work together as a team," says Martin. "How do you get some of the best minds in their fields, who are already making terrific contributions, to join this initiative? You must show a firm commitment. We have done that today. Not only by creating a new department, but by having the good fortune to have Marc Kirschner lead it."

Two additional founding faculty members have been named, Timothy Mitchison, currently a member of the HMS Cell Biology Department, and Lewis Cantley, HMS professor of medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Both already use quantitative and modeling approaches in their own work.

"Recruiting Mitchison and Cantley to the new venture brings unparalleled strength in quantitative cell biology, chemistry, and the field of protein interaction--subjects that will give a foundation to this new discipline" said Kirschner.

About the new department's leader

Marc Kirschner, a pioneering cell biologist, has extensive experience both developing new departments and creating interdisciplinary efforts. Kirschner led the 1993 formation of the Medical School's Department of Cell Biology. This department was created out of the Department of Anatomy and Cellular Biology and the Department of Cellular and Molecular Physiology, and following its formation, Kirschner led the development of an integrated graduate program. In 1999, Kirschner helped create the Harvard Institute for Chemistry and Cell Biology, an innovative collaboration of chemists and cell biologists who synthesize small molecules and apply them to learn about gene and protein function.

Kirschner has received Canada's Gairdner Award (2002), one of the most prestigious international awards in medical research. Kirschner has also received Israel's Shacknai Prize (2003) and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology's Rose Award (2001). He was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Science in 1989 and made a Foreign Member of the (U.K.) Royal Society in 1999.

Born in Chicago in 1945, Kirschner took his BA at Northwestern in 1966, started graduate work at Rockefeller University in New York, but jumped to UC Berkeley for his thesis with Howard Schachman in 1971. After postdocs with John Gerhart at Berkeley and John Gurdon at Oxford, Kirschner was hired by Princeton in 1972. In 1978, the Bay Area and UCSF's emergence as research hot spot drew Kirchner back. Kirchner's time at UCSF (1978-1993) is regarded as one of the pivotal periods in American science. In 1993, Kirschner was recruited to start the Department of Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School.

Kirschner served as ASCB President in 1990-91, establishing the society as a national leader in science advocacy. He helped create the Joint Steering Committee, a broad coalition of scientific societies that educate Congress on the implications of the accelerating biomedical revolution, and served as its first Chair. For his contributions to science advocacy, Kirschner received the ASCB's Public Service Award in 1996.

In December of this year, Kirschner will receive the E.B. Wilson Medal, the ASCB's highest scientific honor. The ASCB's E.B. Wilson Medal, named for an early 20th century pioneer of American biology who advocated the chromosomal theory of inheritance, is awarded by scientific peers to those who have made significant and far-reaching contributions to cell biology over the course of a career.

Profile of Marc Kirschner by the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB)

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Harvard Medical School. "Harvard Medical School Launches New Department To Study Human Biology At The Level Of Whole Systems." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 September 2003. <>.
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