Afternoon of Science Series: Department of Molecular Pharmacology & Therapeutics

The Afternoon of Science series at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons continued Jan. 22 with presentations by faculty from the Department of Molecular Pharmacology & Therapeutics.

“Pharmacology is the nexus of discovery and translation,” said Cory Abate-Shen, PhD, chair of the department. Abate-Shen went on to say that the field investigates the basic mechanisms that underlie normal functioning of cells and organisms, with the ultimate goal of identifying therapeutic targets that impact human health. In 2019, the department changed its name to reflect its modern role in translating discoveries into precision therapies.

“We translate basic discoveries that impact patient care through collaboration, one of our core values,” Abate-Shen said. Department investigators work with collaborators in 16 centers or departments across Columbia. Abate-Shen also discussed the impact of investments in training and mentorship and the importance of providing a supportive environment for the department’s scientists. “Building a great department is not just about getting the best people it is also about providing the best environment so that they can be successful.”

Two major directions for the department’s future, Abate-Shen said, are to establish the department as a center of excellence for chemical biology and to position the department as a basic science partner for clinical departments. Both would have benefits for drug discovery and patient care.

In opening the Afternoon of Science, VP&S Dean Katrina Armstrong, MD, said the series provides an opportunity to think about the tapestry of science at the medical school: “These afternoons ensure that we understand the opportunities for collaboration, for synergy, for joint investment.” She thanked members of the audience who have attended multiple Afternoons of Science: “I want you to know that gives me such great excitement about our future to know that you care about the science like I do.”

Attendees at the event included external advisers from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Yale University, and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/Harvard Medical School.

Presentations were given by the following faculty members:

  • Nikhil Sharma, PhD, Assistant Professor of Molecular Pharmacology & Therapeutics
    Presentation: “Unraveling the mysteries of the second brain: Linking fundamental neuroscience to pharmacology”
    To understand the development and function of neural circuits that lead to pain, Sharma’s lab studies how neurons known as primary nociceptors can detect and transmit noxious stimuli from peripheral organs, such as the skin, to the spinal cord and brain. Peripheral neural circuits are critical for multiple critical biological processes, including pain and visercal organ function. The Sharma lab studies how peripheral neurons develop and ultimately connect peripheral organs, such as the skin and intestine, to the brain.
  • Carla Concepcion-Crisol, PhD, Assistant Professor of Molecular Pharmacology & Therapeutics
    Presentation: “Elucidating the role of chromatin regulation in lethal lung cancer: Bridging basic science and translational research”
    Using genetically engineered mouse models, organoids, and patient-derived xenografts as model systems, the Concepcion lab studies how chromatin deregulation impacts tumor evolution with a focus on lung cancer. The lab aims to understand how altered chromatin states contribute to cell fates as tumors evolve.
  • Dian Yang, PhD, Assistant Professor of Molecular Pharmacology & Therapeutics
    Presentation: “Deciphering tumor evolution in vivo: Bringing technological innovations to cancer research”
    Yang and his lab study the fundamental principles of tumor evolution to identify key regulators of tumor progression. The lab combines CRISPR-based molecular recording tools, genetically engineered mouse models, single cell genomics-related algorithm development, and in vivo functional assays with a goal of developing a comprehensive and quantitative roadmap of tumor evolution.
  • Qing R. Fan, PhD, Professor of Molecular Pharmacology & Therapeutics and of Pathology & Cell Biology
    Presentation: “Structural biology of cell surface receptors and implications for human health: Structural insights into classical pharmacology”
    The Fan lab studies the molecular mechanisms by which class C G protein-coupled receptors transmit signals across biological membranes, focusing on the human GABA(B) receptor and human calcium-sensing receptor.
  • Yonghao Yu, PhD, the Gustavus A. Pfeiffer Professor of Molecular Pharmacology & Therapeutics
    Presentation: “Expanding the druggable post-translational modifications in the human proteome: The impact of chemical biology on modern pharmacology”
    The Yu Lab uses a multidisciplinary approach to focus on the chemical biology of novel covalent protein modifications in the human proteome. The lab is developing covalent protein modification and chemoproteomic technologies that have the potential to revolutionize drug development by pushing the boundaries of the druggable proteome.

About the series

Since June 2023, six departments or centers at VP&S have participated in the Afternoon of Science series, part of a year-long scientific prioritization process designed to facilitate collaboration and coordination across the medical school.


Cory Abate-Shen also is the Robert Sonneborn Professor of Medicine, a faculty member in the Departments of Urology, Pathology & Cell Biology, and Systems Biology, and a member of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Institute for Cancer Genetics.