UC Berkeley launches half-a-billion dollar research initiative linking biological and physical sciences and engineering to spur biomedical advances

By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs

BERKELEY -- Launching a bold new effort to understand and solve today's major health problems, the University of California, Berkeley, is redefining health science research by uniting physical and biological scientists and engineers.

UC Berkeley's new Health Sciences Initiative promises to stimulate new developments in cancer treatment, medical imaging, therapies for brain and spinal cord injuries, and the understanding and treatment of genetic and infectious diseases and the onset of dementias in old age.

Sparked by a revolution in which physical tools increasingly are applied to the biological sciences in areas such as non-invasive imaging, microscopy and nanotechnology, UC Berkeley plans to involve as many as 400 researchers -- from fields including the biological sciences, public health, psychology, physics, chemistry, engineering, mathematics and computer science -- in interdisciplinary research. Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory also will participate in this collaborative effort. (Click here for a summary of the major elements of the initiative.)

"We're setting the national agenda for the next century," said Robert Tjian, one of the leaders of the initiative and a professor in the Department of Molecular & Cell Biology. "This is a major shift in what biologists have traditionally done. Modern biologists of the 21st century will have to embrace all these other areas, because many of tomorrow's important breakthroughs in biology will occur at the convergence of these diverse fields."

"The advantages to society are enormous," said Daniel E. Koshland Jr., a UC Berkeley professor and biochemist who also is heading up the initiative. "Our goal of encouraging interaction among many disciplines, from physics to psychology, is a wonderful challenge."

The central focus of this half-a-billion dollar initiative will be proposed new facilities to be built at a cost of some $300 million, the bulk of it to come from private donations. The campus already has raised $124 million in private and public funds, of which $50 million -- the single largest gift ever received by UC Berkeley -- came this summer from an anonymous donor. An additional $200 million spent on new faculty hires, equipment and research will bring the initiative's total cost to more than $500 million. (For further details on funding, click here.)

These new facilities will house many of the new tools and technologies being applied to the health sciences. These range from gene chips to cryo-electron microscopes, bioMEMS to novel materials, state-of-the-art magnetic resonance imagers to parallel computers.

The tools will help researchers advance disease prevention and diagnosis; drug design and development; patient evaluation and therapy. Which basic research projects will lead to such advances cannot always be foreseen, however.

Immunologist James Allison, for example, was interested in how the cells of the immune system work, but that curiosity led him to a new immune therapy that soon will enter clinical trials against prostate cancer and melanoma.

Physical chemist Alexander Pines made his reputation developing novel techniques of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) for the study of molecules and materials, but his work has also led to advances in medical applications of diagnostic magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

And mechanical engineer Lisa Pruitt is applying her interest in how plastic polymers break down under repeated stress to a growing medical problem, the breakdown of artificial joints.

Traditionally, such health care advances have come from medical schools. But today, some of the most exciting work in biomedicine is happening at the boundary of disciplines not found on a typical medical campus. (Click here for profiles of ongoing research projects that are part of the initiative.)

"Broad-based universities like UC Berkeley can bring to the health care table something that most medical schools cannot -- physicists, chemists and engineers trained on the edge of biology and eager to work closely with health scientists," said UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl. "One of Berkeley's core goals is that our research serve the public trust, and this new initiative will enhance and prolong people's lives."

The campus has a long history of involving scholars from many disciplines in problem-solving, he said, placing it in an ideal position to serve as a model for advancing human health. In the 1980s, for example, the campus reinvented the biological sciences by merging fields including anatomy, physiology, microbiology and zoology into three "integrative" departments.

That model was adopted by universities around the world.

"Just as we led the way then," said Berdahl, "in the next century we will redefine the scientific enterprise, continuing our leadership position in the biomedical and health sciences."

In the past, UC Berkeley has not been viewed as a health sciences campus, although much of the research on campus has a biomedical connection. Clear evidence of that connection was the $129.5 million in research funds given to UC Berkeley in fiscal year 1998-99 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That amount represents 44 percent of all federal research dollars to the campus.

"All these fields can have an interest in health, and that is where the real opportunities lie," said Edward E. Penhoet, dean of the School of Public Health and one of the founders of biotechnology giant Chiron Corp. "We can work to facilitate the transfer of new breakthroughs into practice."

Among UC Berkeley's health-oriented programs are the 56-year-old School of Public Health, ranked one of the best in the country and among a very few located at a major university that is not attached to a medical school; and the 75-year-old School of Optometry, which conducts basic research in vision while also running a clinical eye care program. The campus has seven Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators, the most of any university without a medical school, plus long-term cooperative projects with physicians and researchers at UC San Francisco (UCSF).

UC Berkeley's interdisciplinary approach advanced again last year with the establishment of a new Department of Bioengineering -- the first step in the plan for a unique two-campus department with UCSF. UC Berkeley engineers and UCSF physicians have collaborated on biomedical research for decades. The department expands and focuses education in the field and opens new avenues for progress in imaging, design of artificial tissues and joints, bioMEMS, minimally invasive surgery and other areas.

"This department's mission is to bring engineering to biology and biologists to the methods and resources of engineering," said Thomas Budinger, professor and chair of the department.

Research in neuroscience and protein structure -- two large academic concentrations at UC Berkeley -- also have been traditional sources of fundamental findings for advances in medical treatment.

UC Berkeley students will benefit from the Health Sciences Initiative, which will require a rethinking of undergraduate science education. Students preparing for health science research will need knowledge of a broad range of disciplines, not just biology, and cutting-edge training in everything from bioinformatics -- the science of mining databases like the Human Genome Project -- to gene profiling.

UC Berkeley's push toward a new agenda for biomedical research dovetails with a new agenda of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which plans to engage the physical sciences and engineering in medical research in areas such as biomedical imaging, rational drug design and structural biology.

The NIH also is investing more money in research that utilizes the results of the Human Genome Project, a joint effort by NIH and DOE that promises to sequence the full human genome by next year. Once the sequencing is done, someone must translate a gene defect's linkage with a disease into how that defect actually causes the disease. UC Berkeley has some of the best scientists to take on this task.

For example, UC Berkeley computer scientists and bioengineers are joining in to develop the necessary computational tools to manipulate the large databases being created by the genome project. The Health Sciences Initiative also will emphasize genomics and proteomics -- the study of genes and proteins, respectively, as causes or cures of disease.

UC Berkeley can lead the way through its close proximity to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Koshland said. Collaborations are planned with its medical imaging group and its Physical Biosciences Division, headed by UC Berkeley chemist Graham Fleming. The two-year-old division was designed to foster stronger interactions with the campus in the physical and biological sciences.

Tjian emphasizes that the initiative is not just a theoretical reorganization. Rather, it creates a new level of interaction on campus -- a "lab without walls" -- that people and departments care enough about to pool their efforts, money and space. Even the College of Natural Resources, traditionally oriented toward agriculture and plant biology, is eager to participate in the initiative.

"This initiative is more than anything about synergy," Penhoet added. "It's about departments working together to advance health care in the next century."

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