Assembling the pieces
Yijun Ruan is working to find and assemble the pieces to our genomics puzzle.
The Jackson Laboratory hired Clare Tully, an attorney with expertise in the nonprofit sector, as its new senior director for human resources, health and safety. Tully succeeds Mae Landesman, who retired after nearly 15 years of progressively greater responsibility.
Tully joins the Laboratory from the Portland, Maine, law firm of Bernstein Shur. Prior to her tenure there, she worked for more than a decade for the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and was senior vice president of the National Audubon Society.
"Clare brings a strong passion for the Laboratory's mission and a background that includes a broad spectrum of experience that will be critical to developing and supporting our workforce for the future," says Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Charles E. Hewett, Ph.D. "For an institution as complex and fast-growing as ours, that's vital."
Tully will oversee all of the Laboratory's human resource and environmental health and safety programs, including recruiting, retention and employee development.
The Maine Cancer Foundation named The Jackson Laboratory's Neal Goodwin, Ph.D., as the recipient of the 2012 Medical Care & Research Award. Goodwin received the award at a fundraising gala in Portland in October and also was the event's keynote speaker.
Goodwin is the director of the Laboratory's In Vivo Pharmacology Services and leads an innovative research effort to assemble a collection of cancer tumors known as a tumor library. The tumor library works with leading medical institutions from around the country, including Maine, to collect tumor samples directly from patients and store them for cancer research.
"The biomedical research community needs a common, readily accessible tumor resource to support cancer drug development efforts," says Goodwin. "No single cancer center has a patient population broad enough to meet this need. The tumor library will support large-scale basic and preclinical research studies, which should speed discovery and development of new cancer drugs."
Neurobiologist Gareth Howell, Ph.D., was named to The Jackson Laboratory's faculty as an assistant professor. Howell previously worked as a research scientist in the laboratory of Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and Jackson Laboratory Professor Simon John, Ph.D.
Howell's work in the John lab focused on glaucoma, and he contributed to several important discoveries. Earlier this year, he reported with colleagues that a single, targeted X-ray treatment of an individual eye in young, glaucoma-prone mice apparently protected that eye from glaucoma for life.
While working on the project, Howell became intrigued by the effects of X-ray radiation on plaque deposits in the brains of mouse models of Alzheimer's disease. This observation is the basis for the research plan that Howell will undertake as an independent investigator. Howell will also continue to study glaucoma in collaboration with the John lab.
"My goal is to use the strengths of The Jackson Laboratory—the genetic approaches, expertise and resources—to better understand dementias, including Alzheimer's disease," Howell says. "Some of the experiments I'm planning are relevant to glaucoma as well."
Jackson Laboratory Professor Carol Bult was one of 15 "Healthcare Heroes" honored at a luncheon during the Health & Wellness Expo in early October at the Portland Expo Building. The expo and awards are sponsored by the Portland Press Herald and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.
The Healthcare Heroes Awards honor healthcare professionals, educators, researchers and volunteers who go above and beyond to care for the community every day. Bult was the honoree in the Advancements in Health Care Research & Development category. She is a geneticist and bioinformatician who uses both computational and experimental approaches to understand the genomics of complex biological processes.
"I am fortunate to have a career where my main focus every day is to discover how complex biological systems work so that we can use this knowledge to improve human health," Bult says. "I see this award as recognition not just of my work alone, but also of the community of colleagues in Maine and around the world who make it possible for me to bridge basic research and clinical applications."
In early October the Laboratory announced the launch of a $27 million expansion of its JAX—West facility in Sacramento, which will add new space to house and care for genetically defined mice.
In 2001 the Laboratory established a small facility at UC Davis to begin exploring a West Coast expansion. Within a few years, growth necessitated a move to expanded West Sacramento facilities. Finally, in 2009 the Laboratory moved into larger space in Sacramento. With the latest expansion, the JAX—West facility's employee count of 132 is expected to grow to more than 200, with a facility expansion from 115,000 to 165,000 square feet.
Kathy Vandegrift, associate general manager of JAX® Mice, Clinical & Research Services, explains that there are "significant biosecurity and redundancy benefits to balancing our production more evenly between our East and West Coast facilities. As our Sacramento facility expands, it enables us to distribute in an easterly direction over the Rockies and into the remainder of the United States."
Jackson Laboratory researchers and professional staff traveled from their Maine, California and Connecticut campuses to the University of Connecticut at Storrs in early September for the first joint scientific symposium between the two organizations. The symposium provided a launching point for the formation of a new institute for systems genomics at UConn.
Brief presentations from 16 Laboratory scientists and 27 UConn researchers highlighted the two-day event, which drew a total registration of more than 350 attendees. Reflecting the broad research interests of the invited presenters, the short talks covered topics ranging from new bioinformatics technologies used in genomic analysis to the potential for genome sequencing to identify disease in cattle.
Laboratory President and CEO Edison T. Liu, M.D., and UConn President Susan Herbst, Ph.D., delivered the opening remarks. "Together, we're really, really big. If we can only work together, we can beat the pants off a lot of other places," said Liu. Herbst expanded on the theme, adding, "This is our strength: our creative and intellectual capital. This is what will make the www.jax.org Leading the search for tomorrow's cures 7 partnership with Jackson so successful. It's the brainpower that we have here."
The Laboratory recently installed an 82-inch touchscreen monitor in a central conference room. Although it resembles a giant iPad, the "visualization wall," as it is known, carries with it far more capability. In addition to its ability to present large-scale, high-definition graphic images, the monitor and the computer system that powers it bring a critical new level of data visualization and analysis to scientists at the Laboratory.
The sheer volume and detail of data being produced by current researchers make it difficult if not impossible to manage the data on a personal computer. Accurate analysis can also require the combined expertise of several specialists at the same time. With a virtually unlimited number of touch points, the new system allows multiple users to manipulate different screens and programs at the same time, supporting the integration of unique data sets and promoting collaboration among scientists.
For Associate Professor Judith Blake, Ph.D., the system provides a better work platform. "We're working in an age of team science," Blake says. "This technology makes it easier to move around in the cloud of information in a collaborative way."
Software Engineer Dave Walton is working with researchers to develop a new multi-touch genome browser program for the visualization wall. Three smaller systems, with 27-inch screens, are also being used for software development and research collaborations.
"I think we'll be seeing more and more of these devices, as they bring together what you get from a whiteboard, a projector and an iPad, all in one," Walton says.
The Laboratory's system is manufactured by Perceptive Pixel, which in 2008 provided a similar system to the CNN channel. CNN's "magic wall" is used for election coverage and other data-heavy reporting.
Jennifer Trowbridge, Ph.D., a cancer researcher who studies leukemia stem cells, joined The Jackson Laboratory's faculty as an assistant professor in late August. She came to the Laboratory from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Children's Hospital Boston, where she conducted her postdoctoral research.
"The Jackson Laboratory is a very exciting place to establish my independent research program," Trowbridge says. "Having experience in the trials and tribulations that come along with translational science and getting results from the bench to the clinic, the Laboratory's push toward translational biology and opening the JAX Genomic Medicine campus in Connecticut are a huge asset."
Trowbridge researches what are known as hematopoietic stem cells, which give rise to the various kinds of normal blood cells. She seeks to understand how they self-renew and how that process relates to leukemia stem cells. The research will provide insights into how to arrest leukemia stem cells and provide more effective therapies.
"For me, the most satisfying outcome of a new discovery in the lab is seeing realization of its potential to impact human disease, and at JAX I am confident that we can make that happen," Trowbridge says.