Climbing for Silas
Toddler's rare disease spurs Maine boy to use his own legs and lungs to help those who can't.
On August 26, The Jackson Laboratory named Edison Liu, M.D., as its new president and chief executive officer. Liu will officially begin his work at the Laboratory on Jan. 2, 2012.
Liu is an international leader in cancer biology, genomics, human genetics and molecular epidemiology. He is the founding executive director of the Genome Institute of Singapore, building it in less than 10 years from a staff of three into a major research institute of 27 laboratory groups and a staff of 270. Before moving to Singapore in 2001, he was the scientific director of the National Cancer Institute's Division of Clinical Sciences in Bethesda, Md.
Regarding the hiring, Leo Holt, newly elected chair of the Laboratory's Board of Trustees, says, "Dr. Liu's arrival signals to a broad audience what the scientific world has always known: The Jackson Laboratory is a dynamic pivot point at the intersection of mammalian and human genetics. His talents run broad and deep, and his leadership is a great addition to the team that leads the search for tomorrow's cures."
Liu's experience with human genomics and clinical research strengthens the Laboratory's increasing focus on translational research and genomic medicine. He is serving his second term as the elected president of the Human Genome Organization (HUGO) and his own scientific research has focused on the functional genomics of human cancers, particularly breast cancer.
"The Jackson Laboratory is at a unique crossroads in its history," says Liu. "The options are all good. It's a matter of which is the best. I truly believe that independent organizations like The Jackson Laboratory, with a strong mission and not-for-profit structure but yet with revenues that would help support the scientific mission, are going to be one of the key models going forward to advance science."
Liu's appointment concludes an international search following the January 2011 departure of Richard Woychik, Ph.D., who served eight years as Jackson president and CEO. Woychik left to become deputy director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
Born in Hong Kong in 1952, Liu obtained his B.S. in chemistry and psychology, as well as his M.D., at Stanford University. He served his internship and residency at Washington University's Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, followed by an oncology fellowship at Stanford. From 1982 to 1987 he was at the University of California, San Francisco, first in a hematology fellowship at Moffitt Hospital and then as a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Nobel Laureate J. Michael Bishop, while also serving as an instructor in the School of Medicine.
From 1987 to 1996 he worked at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as an assistant professor in medicine and oncology at the School of Medicine, and rose to full professor directing the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center's Specialized Program of Research Excellence in Breast Cancer. He was also the director of the Laboratory of Molecular Epidemiology at UNC's School of Public Health, chief of medical genetics, and chair of the Correlative Science Committee of the national cooperative clinical trials group, CALGB. At UNC, Liu held faculty positions in the departments of medicine, epidemiology, biochemistry and biophysics, and in the curriculum in genetics.
In 1996 he was appointed director of the Division of Clinical Sciences at the National Cancer Institute. In this capacity, he was responsible for the scientific and administrative direction for the intramural clinical research arm of NCI consisting of 1,200 employees organized in 16 branches/ laboratories/departments, and led by 100 principal investigators.
In 2001 he was recruited as the executive director for the new Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS), tasked with developing the region's genomic research, infrastructure, and scientific human capital, and attracting R&D ventures in biomedicine into Singapore. Under Liu's leadership, the GIS grew into a major international research institute, with faculty in functional genomics, computational biology, population genetics and genometo- systems biology. Liu also played major roles in the development of Singapore's larger R&D landscape.
Liu is also the recipient of a number of awards, including the Brinker International Award for basic science research in Breast Cancer, 1996, the Rosenthal Award from the American Association for Cancer Research, 2000, and the President's Public Service Medal for helping Singapore resolve the SARS crisis, 2007.
In his spare time, Liu pursues jazz piano and composition, and writes for the lay public in regional newspapers and magazines on science, medicine and society.
Leo A. Holt of Philadelphia became the new chair of The Jackson Laboratory's Board of Trustees at the board's Annual Meeting in Bar Harbor, Maine, in August 2011. Holt succeeds Brian Wruble, who stepped down after two terms as chair.
Holt is president of Holt Logistics Corp., a marine terminal and logistics systems developer and operator, with facilities in Philadelphia and Gloucester City, N.J. He has participated in the Laboratory's governance since 2004. He was elected to the Board of Trustees in 2007 and became vice chairman in February 2011.
"Leo Holt is deeply committed to The Jackson Laboratory's mission to improve human health," says Jackson Executive Vice President and COO Charles Hewett, Ph.D., "He is an established leader who will guide our institution to growth and national prominence."
"Like The Jackson Laboratory, we rely on our people for creativity, innovation and relentless pursuit of excellence," Holt says. "The successes we enjoy today are best safeguarded by never resting in this search, whether that is for solutions to complex logistics issues, work opportunity for our employees or in the search for tomorrow's cures at the Laboratory."
The Jackson Laboratory has recently been recognized as one of the best places to work by two separate publications: locally, among all employers in Maine, and nationally, in the academic life sciences field.
In August, the Laboratory was named among the 2011 "Best Places to Work in Maine." The recognition is based on an evaluation of a company's workplace policies and practices, and on information collected through an employee survey. The program concludes with an awards ceremony in October, where the final rankings will be announced. Honorees will be profiled in a special publication by Mainebiz magazine.
The local honor came soon after The Scientist magazine named the Laboratory one of the 2011 "Best Places to Work in Academia" in the United States. It ranked number 13 among 40 top U.S. academic research institutions, with infrastructure, peer interactions and environment cited as the Laboratory's greatest workplace strengths. The rankings were published in the July 2011 issue.
Many promising cancer treatments reach early clinical testing in humans, but only a very small percentage pass that stage and go on to benefit patients. A new partnership between The Jackson Laboratory, the UC Davis Cancer Center and the National Cancer Institute's Center for Advanced Preclinical Research (CAPR) is seeking to improve those odds.
The collaboration seeks to establish a uniform and controlled testing process to integrate data from mouse cancer model studies with patient clinical trial studies. The approach will help identify biomarkers, molecules that provide targets for candidate drugs and help predict when they will be most effective.
"There is an urgent need for more predictive models of human cancer for drug discovery," said Charles Hewett, Ph.D., executive vice president and COO of The Jackson Laboratory. "Unfortunately, nine out of 10 cancer drugs entering preclinical testing fail. This comes at great cost to the pharmaceutical industry and to patients. The integrated approach we have with CAPR and UC Davis targets these issues directly."
Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is the most common inherited cause of infant mortality, affecting about 1 in 25,000 births. Now, Jackson Laboratory Research Scientist Cathy Lutz, Ph.D., has collaborated with researchers at Columbia University and other sites to develop a better way to treat the disease, with the findings appearing in the August issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation.
The cause of SMA centers around a protein known as SMN. Reduced levels of SMN caused by gene mutations in motor neuron cells lead to progressive and ultimately fatal muscle degeneration. Working with a newly developed mouse model of SMA, Lutz and colleagues showed that restoring the SMN protein even after symptoms appeared could reverse the motor neuron degeneration.
But restoring the protein was most effective if done early. "There was a therapeutic 'window of opportunity' during which the mice responded best to the SMN treatment," says Lutz. The research is still in an early stage, but the results point to early screening of newborns and clinical SMN restoration as an effective potential therapy for this devastating disease.
Governor Paul Lepage visited The Jackson Laboratory on August 4 to see how one of Maine's largest employers is generating jobs on its own campus and throughout the state.
Highlights of the visit included viewing the Laboratory's new energy center, which will replace about 1.2 million gallons of fuel oil each year with Maine-grown wood pellets, and meeting with Joan Malcolm-Albee, a biomedical engineer who is working with technology and manufacturing companies throughout Maine to commercialize new laboratory tools and techniques.
"The Jackson Laboratory has a long history in our state, generating more than 1,200 jobs in Hancock County and another 2,100 throughout Maine," said Governor LePage. "I commend the level of commitment their staff has had in our state."
The Jackson Laboratory's Primary Human Tumor Consortium effort gained a powerful new partner with the addition of Scripps Translational Science Institute (STSI) of San Diego, Calif., in June.
The Laboratory is building a library of primary human tumors with the goal of developing highly targeted cancer therapies. STSI will provide solid human tumor samples, which will be grafted into mouse models for study. The initial tumor genomic characterization data will be shared with all participating institutions, which also include the University of Florida, the Swedish Neuroscience Institute of Seattle and UC Davis Cancer Center.
Mouse models that can accept newly resected human tumors offer a highly productive way to develop and test cancer treatments. Mouse models of virtually any kind of cancer can be developed, providing a more individualized approach to finding new treatments.