Marc Tessier-Lavigne on Moving from Basic Research to Curing Disease
  Marc Tessier-Lavigne     Biography    
Recorded: 11 Sep 2008

So that was I guess in 2003. So maybe I can just describe in the ’90s after we purified netrins we focused on understanding netrins and the signal transduction mechanisms that are involved in total response. We also continued to try to identify other factors that are involved in axon growth and guidance. But also the and I think this influence came from seeking out funding, I became more and more interested in the potential applications of that knowledge to disease and to repair.

So I received funding as I mentioned from the Spinal Cord Research Foundation. They were of course interested in understanding how to stimulate repair of damaged neurofibers in the spinal cord after injury when the spinal cord is injured and axons are severed they don’t regrow so the paralysis that accompanies spinal cord injury is often permanent. And the question was whether it ever be possible to rekindle the growth of axons. They figured that if you could identify molecules that are involved in guiding axons during development that might have applications in the adult. And as a result of interacting with that foundation and with other such foundations I actually became very interested in the problem and started to work on it. And that was my first entrée into thinking about applying basic science to understanding disease with an eye to developing therapies or even cures. And that started in the late ’90s. I remained very focused on basic mechanisms. But more and more interested in disease. Over time that became a more dominant theme of my work.

So when I was approached by Genentech I was actually primed and very excited about the idea of continuing to do basic research but at the same time broaden the scope of my activities related to disease and even more exciting to be able to work with real professionals and taking that knowledge and trying to turn it into medicines that could help people. I would say that the other thing that motivated me to make the move and again in 2003 was the sense that we’ve entered the golden age of disease research translational research in drug discovery. The 1980s, the 1990s, the sequencing of the human genome, the identification of a human disease gene by positional cloning, the development of tools to be able to construct representative animal models in transgenic and knockout models in others has positioned us to be able to tackle disease biology with the same rigor with which we as scientists love to tackle the understanding of basic mechanisms. And so for me in the early 1990s what I was excited about it in the late ’80s and early ’90s and through the ’90s was trying to deconstruct brain wiring. The brain is the most complex organ in the body. I thought what could be more exciting than to figure out how the brain wires itself. It seems so complicated. Can we deconstruct this? Can we through by applying our ingenuity bit by bit take it apart? And I think that’s the program that has occurred over the past two decades, and which I was so thrilled to be a part of then and continue to be a part of now as I continue to do basic research on that. But in the 2000s that same kind of challenge…I would say the two most complicated things are consciousness and disease. I guess I was attracted to focus on the latter, nor the former.

But we can in the same way, in the same ways when we looked in the beginning of the ’90s we’ll understand how you wire the brain in the early ’90s -- I think a lot of people would have said you’re crazy. It’s just too complicated all these axons going in all sorts of places making these specific connections how can we possibly do it? And of course the way we do it is by taking simple steps, focusing on simple systems both invertebrates and also genetic systems like drosophila, and C. elegans and Zebrafish and bit by bit building back up to the complexity of the brain. In the same way, by tackling complex diseases we can now tackle them by deconstructing them bit by bit but all the tools that are at our disposal thanks to the scientific revolution that’s occurred over the past several decades.

And so in 2003 when I was approached by Genentech it seemed to me that this was the great opportunity that faces us as scientists and here they’ve come in my backyard. I didn’t have to move. My kids didn’t have to leave their schools. You know I can go and try it out see what its like and potentially be part of this great movement of applying basic science to understand disease and in the process hopefully having a beneficial impact on human health. So it ended up being a no-brainer.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne, a pioneer in developmental neurobiology, is currently president of The Rockefeller University in New York, where he heads the Laboratory of Brain Development and Repair, and oversees 70 independent laboratories that operate within the university. He is the first industry executive to serve as president of Rockefeller. He joined Genentech, Inc. in 2003 as Senior Vice President, Research Drug Discovery, and was promoted to Executive Vice President, Research Drug Discovery in June, 2008. In that capacity, he was responsible for research management of all therapeutic areas of research, including a team of 1,400 researchers and his own research lab. His research at Genentech on the development of the brain uncovered details of how Alzheimer's disease is triggered.

Born in Canada in 1959, he was also raised in Belgium and the UK, and has lived in the US since 1990. Marc completed an undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics from McGill University (B.Sc., 1980), and a second undergraduate degree in philosophy and physiology from Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar, B.A., 1982). Prior to earning his Ph.D. at University College London (1986) in neurophysiology, Marc became the national coordinator of the Canadian Student Pugwash Organization, which promotes awareness and action relating to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, and other ethical implications of science and technology policy. During his postdoctoral work at UCL and Columbia University, Marc’s research focus became developmental neurobiology. From 1991 to 2001 he was on the faculty at the University of California, San Francisco.

From 1994 to 2003 he was also an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. His famous discovery of the netrins (a class of proteins involved in axon guidance) occurred in 1994 while he was at the University of California, San Francisco. In 2000 he co-founded the biopharmaceutical company Renovis. From 2001-2003 he was the Susan B. Ford Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and professor of Biological Sciences and a professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University.

Among the many awards Marc has received for his work in neuroscience are the McKnight Investigator Award (1994), the Ameritec Prize (1995), the Foundation IPSEN Prize for Neuronal Plasticity (shared, 1996), the Viktor Hamburger Award, International Society for Developmental Neuroscience (1997), the Wakeman Award for spinal cord injury research (shared, 1998), the Robert Dow Neuroscience Award (2003), and the Reeve-Irvine Research Medal (shared, 2006). Tessier-Lavigne has been elected a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and a fellow of the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences in the United Kingdom.