VP&S Afternoon of Science Series Kicks Off

The Department of Genetics & Development and the Institute for Cancer Genetics shared their latest research and future plans in June events

The first Afternoons of Science at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, held June 22 and June 26, offered a basic science department and institute the opportunity to share their latest science and thoughts about the future. The Afternoon of Science Series, part of a year-long scientific prioritization process, is designed to facilitate collaboration and coordination across VP&S.

The two events were well-attended by the VP&S research community and beyond, including participation by four external advisors at each session, with engaging question-and-answer sessions following each individual presentation by researchers.

“These science afternoons are an opportunity to appreciate the extraordinary science happening at Columbia and for our researchers to share the new methods and developments in technology that advance our understanding of fundamental questions in science,” said Katrina Armstrong, MD, dean of VP&S, at the first Science Afternoon on June 22. “This is a time of incredible opportunity for basic science research and a time for us to consider how we want to come together as a community to have the greatest impact on human health.”

The Afternoon of Science Series will resume in the fall with the Departments of Neuroscience, Physiology & Cellular Biophysics, and Microbiology & Immunology.

Department of Genetics & Development

The first Afternoon of Science featured the Department of Genetics & Development. The event was hosted by Gerard Karsenty MD, PhD, chair of the Department of Genetics & Development, who shared a collective vision for the department.

“The missions of medicine and genetics are inherently aligned,” Karsenty said. “Medicine diagnoses and treats diseases, whereas the goals of genetics include identification and study of genes and genetic pathways mutated or affected in genetic or degenerative diseases. Hence, genetics is the pursuit of the goals of medicine through other means.”

Karsenty also spoke of the strength of the department and the growth of research in recent years. Current areas of focus for the department include developmental biology, stem cells, genome integrity (DNA recombination, repair, and replication), epigenetics, cancer biology, organismal homeostasis, the biology of aging, and human genetics. From 2007 to 2022, members of the department have published 60 papers in Cell, Nature, and Science journals.

Presentations were given by the following faculty members:

  • Kristin Baldwin, PhD
    Professor of Genetics & Development
    “Cell type engineering for genome-guided translational medicine”
  • Alberto Ciccia, PhD
    Associate Professor of Genetics & Development
    “Interrogating the DNA damage response at nucleotide resolution”
  • Luke Berchowitz, PhD
    Assistant Professor of Genetics & Development (in the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain)
    “From Functional Amyloids to Domesticated Capsids: The Dual Lives of Pathological Structures”
  • Vincenzo Alessandro Gennarino, PhD
    Assistant Professor of Genetics & Development
    “A New Approach to Studying Human Neurological Diseases”
  • Mimi Shirasu-Hiza, PhD
    Associate Professor of Genetics & Development
    “How to Eat More and Live Longer: Lessons on Intermittent Fasting from Drosophilia”

Institute for Cancer Genetics

The June 26 Afternoon of Science event featured the Institute for Cancer Genetics, founded in 2000 to study the pathogenesis of human cancer to identify new ways to treat cancer.

Researchers at the ICG study the general mechanisms involved in tumorigenesis and genetic lesions underlying specific cancer types. The institute integrates structural and functional genomics, systems biology, and mouse modeling and produces pre-clinical models that can lead to collaborative clinical trials. ICG members have academic appointments with several VP&S departments and are members of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Riccardo Dalla-Favera, MD, current and founding director of the ICG, opened the afternoon by providing an overview of the work done at the ICG. The institute’s 13 faculty run 11 labs now located on three floors of the Irving Cancer Research Center building.

From 2018 to 2023, members of the ICG published 19 papers in Cell, Nature, and Science. Major accomplishments of the ICG include the first analysis of the coding genome of B- and T-cell malignancies (2010-2011), the first chromosomal translation in glioblastoma and its clinical targeting (2014), identification of ferroptosis as a key activity of p53 in tumor suppression (2015), identification of the first gene controlling cachexia (2018), and identification of the super-enhancer hypermutation as a mechanism to deregulate gene expression (2022).

Presentations were given by the following faculty members:

  • Shan Zha, MD, PhD
    James A. Wolff Professor of Pediatrics, Pathology & Cell Biology, and Microbiology & Immunology (in the Institute for Cancer Genetics and in the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center)
    “DNA Damage Response and Repair in Cancer Initiation and Therapy”
  • Wei Gu, PhD
    Abraham and Mildred Goldstein Professor of Pathology & Cell Biology (in the Institute for Cancer Genetics)
    “Molecular Mechanisms of p53-Mediated Tumor Suppression”
  • Christine Chio, PhD
    Assistant Professor of Genetics & Development (in the Institute for Cancer Genetics)
    “Malignant Consequences of Altered Redox Signaling: Pancreatic Ductal Adenocarcinoma”
  • Laura Pasqualucci, MD
    Professor of Pathology & Cell Biology (in the Institute for Cancer Genetics)
    “Genomics of B-Cell Lymphoma: Emerging Role of Non-Coding Regulatory Mutations”
  • Swarnali Acharyya, PhD
    Herbert Irving Assistant Professor of Pathology & Cell Biology (in the Institute for Cancer Genetics) and Avon Products Foundation Assistant Professor of Breast Cancer Research
    “Targeting Therapy Resistance in Metastatic Disease”

Dalla-Favera ended the afternoon by outlining opportunities and challenges ahead for the ICG. “We need to know more about the genomic instability that contributes to tumor initiation, progression, and therapy resistance,” he said, and a new focus is needed to interpret somatic and germline mutations. “The basic science planning process ahead will provide new avenues to build research partnerships and create opportunities for strategic recruitment in our center.”

Both events highlighted the importance of research collaboration in advancing discovery.

“The collaborations that happen across the medical center foster our strengths, address our challenges, and build our community,” Armstrong said. “This is a journey that we’re on, and over the next months, as we have other groups share their science and their vision, we can see the ways that we can weave that fabric together. By understanding our strengths and our challenges as we create the future, we can make that fabric stronger.”