Marc Tessier-Lavigne on Postdoc at Tom Jessell’s Lab at Columbia
  Marc Tessier-Lavigne     Biography    
Recorded: 11 Sep 2008

Narrator: Tom at that time was really looking at nerve outgrowth and movement?

That’s right, so the—well, Tom—it was a great place to go also—this was now 1987, I guess. He had moved to Columbia. Tom, as you know, had done a lot of work in physiology but had become fascinated with the specificity of neural connections and become really very focused on nervous system development. But in his lab he continued to do both physiology and development. In a sense that suited me just fine because I came from a physiology background but wanted to get into development. So in fact when I started working there with him, I split my time between a project in collaboration with David Julius who was at the time in Richard Axel’s lab next door focused on cloning ion channels and G-protein coupled-receptors neurotransmitter receptors through expression cloning and oocytes. David and Richard had just invented, but at the same time I started to work on development and you know Tom had started to focus on the mechanisms that are involved in the wiring up of the circuits in the spinal cord and I was fortunate to be able to join him at that time and start working on that. And I carried both sets of projects for about 8 months until I think at some point Tom basically told me ‘Listen, you have to choose one or the other.’ By then I knew that development was where I wanted to go so I focused on development.

Narrator: So what do you think you major finding was in your Columbia period? When did you leave Columbia?

I left in ’91.

Narrator: So what was your major, thing you were most pleased with that you did at Columbia?

Well, clearly working with Tom and Jane Dodd and also a collaborator of Marcin Placzek who was a postdoc there with Jane at the time. Being able to take one of the guidance events in the spinal cord, the growth of commissural axons to target the floorplate and reconstruct that invitro and show that the floorplate actually secrets a chemo-attractant factor for commissural axons. So the idea that axons are guided by chemo-attractants has been around since the time of Ramón y Cajal. He first postulated, he first discovered the growth cone in 1893 and he had a very vivid imagination. In examining growth cones in sections of fixed material he guessed that they would be guided to their targets in part by chemo-attractive mechanisms. That the target would make chemicals that attract the growth cones at a distance. So this idea had been around since the late 1800’s. But evidence had just started to become accumulated in the 1980s, influential work in the peripheral nervous system by Andrew Lumsden and Alun Davies. Then in Tom’s lab we were able to show operation of chemo-attractive mechanism in the spinal cord. So it was the first evidence that Cajal’s theory about attraction applied in the central nervous system of vertebrates. So I would have to say that was the thing I was most proud of.

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.

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