April 28, 1994
Vol. 13, No. 17

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    Director of new oncology center appointed

    Michael Weiss, a leading expert in the use of magnetic resonance techniques to determine the three-dimensional structure and activity of biomolecules, has been named the first Director of the Center for Molecular Oncology, one of five biomedical research centers of the University's new Institute for Molecular Medicine.

    Weiss comes to Chicago from Harvard, where he was associate professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard Medical School and associate professor of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. While at Harvard, he used nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to deduce the three-dimensional shape of DNA-binding proteins and hormones, such as insulin, as they exist in solution. He has shown, for example, that the dynamics of insulin in blood allow it to regulate metabolism and prevent diabetes.

    Weiss also studies molecules that control cell growth from within the nucleus, focusing on the cancer-causing proteins encoded by oncogenes. Many researchers now believe that through determining the structure of these proteins, new, better-targeted cancer therapies can be developed to replace or supplement some chemotherapeutic agents currently used in treatment.

    "Molecular geneticists are identifying many of the molecules that regulate cell division; now we must learn precisely how these molecules work if we hope to intervene in disease processes, including cancer," said Godfrey Getz, Acting Dean of the Biological Sciences Division. "Michael Weiss is uniquely suited to this task, as his expertise bridges the biomedical and physical sciences."

    In addition to his appointment as Director of the Center for Molecular Oncology, Weiss holds joint appointments as Professor in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, Medicine and Chemistry.

    Weiss received his A.B. in 1978, his M.D. in 1985 and his Ph.D. in biophysics in 1986, all from Harvard. He was a visiting scientist at MIT and a lecturer in biophysics at Harvard while he completed his residency in internal medicine at the Brigham and Women's Hospital. He joined the Harvard faculty in 1988.

    Weiss said that the Center for Molecular Oncology will be an organization where "a variety of scientific languages will be applied to uncovering answers about the miscommunication among human cells" that can lead to cancer and other diseases. He brings a team of six co-workers with him from Harvard and will head the search for five other faculty investigators for the Center for Molecular Oncology.

    With the appointment of Weiss, the construction of new high-resolution NMR spectroscopy facilities, and existing strength in X-ray crystallography, the University is emerging as a leading center for research in structural biology.

    "Molecular biology began with structure, when Watson and Crick discovered the DNA double helix 40 years ago," Weiss said, "and its foundation in chemistry was laid by Linus Pauling, who pioneered the concept of a molecular disease.

    "We are fortunate in the 1990s to have at our disposal all of the tools, from cloning to biochemistry to structural techniques, to build on our understanding of basic processes in the body and devise novel clinical therapies."

    One of Weiss' initial research projects here will be to study the sex-determining region of the human Y chromosome as a model for understanding the large family of genetic switches involved in the deregulation of cancer cells.

    Researchers in the Institute for Molecular Medicine will seek to transform discoveries in basic science into new medical treatments for unyielding diseases. The other four research centers in the institute are human genetics, neurobiology, molecular cardiology and the Gwen Knapp Center for Lupus & Immunology Research. The institute is housed in the recently completed 80,000-square-foot Jules F. Knapp Medical Research Building.