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Vol. LXIII, No. 14
July 08, 2011

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‘Start Thinking a Level Up’
Lander Sends Out Clarion Call in 1st Nirenberg Lecture

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Dr. Eric Lander gives first Nirenberg Lecture.
Dr. Eric Lander gives first Nirenberg Lecture.
Attention, next-generation scientists. Dr. Eric Lander has issued you a challenge. In fact, he assigned you a few major projects during the inaugural Marshall Nirenberg Lecture held recently.

“We’re not done,” declared Lander, referring to work remaining in genome science. “It’s time to start thinking a level up.”

Been There, Done That?

Here’s a question for you. How does DNA encode biology? If that query seems more fit for a history test, Lander said, then you haven’t been paying attention to the latest in genome science.

The query recurred often in “From the ‘Genetic Code’ to the ‘Genetic Code,’” the first lecture of what will be an annual scientific tribute to a genome visionary.

While conducting research at NIH in the 1960s, Nirenberg discovered the genetic code, how DNA fundamentally works. The revelation is one of biology’s transformational breakthroughs. Following a lifetime of unparalleled scientific achievement, Nirenberg, the first NIH intramural scientist to win the Nobel Prize, died in January 2010.


“We have better and better answers,” to the DNA question today, Lander explained. “Marshall Nirenberg gave us the first answer…He told us what the codons were and what they did. The Human Genome Project was another answer. All these other things—gene maps, variation maps, epigenomic maps, the [evolutionary] conservation maps—they were answers…[But] we’re not done…There’s a whole full-court press that has to be applied” to identify all of the genes involved in cancer, for example, or all of the genes important in inherited disorders.

“It’s time to start thinking a level up,” Lander continued. “What are all the circuits? It’s time for a project to find all the circuits in cells. I know. It sounds scary, but it’s a finite number.”

Dr. Eric Lander

With Nirenberg’s legacy as a backdrop, Lander says, “We’re going to have to take the same kinds of approaches that led from Marshall Nirenberg through the Human Genome Project to this exciting decade of work in many labs from students all over the world. We’re going to need to bring that same attitude toward therapeutic science.”

Photos: Bill Branson

In Search of the Next Nirenberg

Lander, president and director of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, co-chairs (with White House Office of Science and Technology Policy director Dr. John Holdren) President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Trained as a mathematician, the molecular biologist and geneticist is also a close friend and advisor to NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, who introduced Lander at the lecture as a “leading intellect of the human genome enterprise” as well as a “formidable negotiator.”

Lander said he was honored to be chosen as the first NIH Nirenberg guest lecturer. He wove several science history lessons into his talk, urging next-generation scientists to adopt the “same attitude as Nirenberg.”

Earlier, Lander had retold reminiscences from several of Nirenberg’s colleagues—most notably former NIH’er and former Merck president Ed Scolnick. They often refer fondly to that 1960s era when they felt a “tremendous joy of doing science.”

Don’t we feel that same sentiment now? Lander asked.

“Lots [of innovations are] possible because of the explosion of technology,” he said. “The mind is the rate-limiting thing. It’s an amazing time…like Nirenberg’s time.”

A Great Deal Left to Discover

Lander recalled that Nobelist Renato Dulbecco called in the 1980s for a “Human Genome Project premised on the idea that we’d need it for cancer. It was one of multiple influential calls.”

When the HGP started in 1990, scientists knew of 12 genes that played important roles in solid tumors. By 2000, the number had grown to 80. At last year’s count, the number was already up to 240.

“It is simply not the case that we know most of the genes that are important in cancer,” Lander said. However, he noted, NCI and NHGRI undertook the Cancer Genome Atlas Project in 2006 to find out.

“I believe it’s beginning to be time for this next generation to start saying how they’re going to build a complete catalog of circuitry that emerges from DNA,” he suggested.

Catch an Attitude

In throwing down the gauntlet to future Nirenberg- like visionaries, Lander also put public sector science institutions on alert. Their leadership on seemingly impossible—and undoubtedly expensive—scientific dreams is crucial.

Producing potential cures and treatments—in effect, providing more answers to the question of how biology reads the codes of disease—will require the same creativity, courage and fortitude shown by Nirenberg and colleagues of his era.

“We’re only going to get this done with translational science,” Lander said. “We’re going to have to take the same kinds of approaches that led from Marshall Nirenberg through the Human Genome Project to this exciting decade of work in many labs from students all over the world. We’re going to need to bring that same attitude toward therapeutic science.”

The Purpose of a Public Sector

In conclusion, Lander seemed to speak directly to those who would foist off such big, expensive projects to another research community.

“We can’t ask it of the pharmaceutical folks,” he concluded. “We can’t say to the pharmaceutical industry, ‘In addition to having to produce drugs, serve your shareholders at a very difficult time, why don’t you also invent lots of new ways to do this? Why don’t you also invent totally new kinds of chemistry, new kinds of assays, new kinds of ways to do medicinal chemistry to improve things and totally take on undruggable targets?’

“No. That is why we have a public sector. That is why we have academia…to take on hard fundamental problems and bring novel solutions. We’re going to need the same approach that has been so successful in the last quarter century brought to therapeutic sciences.” NIHRecord Icon

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