U-M Life Sci Institute Looks Ahead with $150M Initiative, Symposium

Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor — 

The University of Michigan’s Life Sciences Institute (LSI) is hosting its 16th annual Saltiel Life Sciences Symposium later this month, and for the first time, rather than focusing on a narrow segment of the industry, the lineup of speakers will discuss the technologies behind some of the sector’s most exciting recent innovations.

Alan [Saltiel] started the tradition of a cutting-edge symposium in different areas of life sciences,” says Roger Cone, who leads the LSI. “We’ve never focused on the technology itself, but we’re doing it this year because it’s the university’s 200th anniversary and because over the past decade, we’ve seen an explosion of new technologies completely changing how we do research in life sciences.”

The symposium’s organizers deliberately chose speakers who are pioneers focused on areas of research that don’t yet have a huge presence at U-M—or anywhere else outside of the researcher’s lab, in some cases. The topics they will cover at the symposium include gene editing, single-cell biology, optogenetics, and cryo-electron microscopy. (More on the speakers in a minute.)

Cone feels single-cell technologies are among the most promising new innovations in biotech, especially when researchers can look at why a healthy cell becomes malignant. That’s an area where U-M has already made some inroads, he adds. Last month, U-M professor Arul Chinnaiyan published the results of a study in Nature that examined the genetic and molecular landscape of advanced cancer.

“What kills people is metastatic disease,” Cone explains. “It’s extremely important to know the changes that allow cells to become metastatic. Both in cancer and neuroscience, gene expression in single cells is revolutionary biology, and the university will absolutely play a role in developing that technology.”

In fact, Cone feels this area is so important that next year’s life sciences symposium will be solely dedicated to single-cell innovations.

Just this week, the university announced that a multidisciplinary faculty committee has been tasked with identifying and pursuing emerging research opportunities. As part of U-M president Mark Schlissel’s Biosciences Initiative, a 16-member committee will have $150 million over five years to invest in new faculty hires, equipment, and other tools meant to facilitate  progress and spark collaboration.

The Saltiel Life Sciences Symposium will be held on Sept. 15 at Forum Hall in Palmer Commons, on U-M’s campus. The event is free and open to the public. See below for details about the featured speakers and what they’ve been working on.

George Church, a professor at Harvard and MIT and co-founder of numerous startups, wants to “reanimate the woolly mammoth, edit pig genes so their organs can be transplanted safely into people—oh, and reverse aging,” according to a profile in STAT News.

Karl Deisseroth, a Stanford psychiatrist, will discuss his optogenetics technique, which the New Yorker said “has given researchers unprecedented access to the workings of the brain,” allowing them to observe the neural circuitry of lab animals as well as control behavior through cell manipulation.

Phillip Keller is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher whose team developed a microscope that can quickly produce 3D images of whole organisms.

—University of Texas Southwest Medical Center professor Daniela Nicastro uses cryo-electron microscopy, an advanced imaging technique where human samples are rapidly frozen to preserve their structure, then an electron microscope is used to produce images that can be transformed into 3D models. This helps researchers pinpoint diseases that affect tiny structures such as cilia, the infinitesimal hairs in the human body.

David Walt, a scientist at Harvard and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, has had a long career as a chemist, entrepreneur, and engineer, founding successful startups focused on genetic screening and ultra-sensitive protein analysis.