Marc Tessier-Lavigne on Working on Axon Growth and Guidance
  Marc Tessier-Lavigne     Biography    
Recorded: 11 Sep 2008

When I moved to work with Tom. So that’s when I started working on axon growth and guidance. So what happened—I would say that the problem that drew me away from information processing to development, in part when I was at the Cold Spring Harbor course and I continuing to read and learn after that was the issue of activity dependent rearrangements. The work of Hubel and Weisel and later others showing that experience can shape neural connections. Which to me was—I found the most fascinating problem. But being a little bit hard nosed about it, it seemed to me that at the time—remember this was 20 years ago, this was in the late ‘80s—that as exciting as that problem was to me, I thought that getting to a molecular mechanistic explanation was going to take a long time, and the related field of axon growth and guidance understanding how axons make it to their target in the first place, seemed a problem that was ripe for discovery for a number of reasons. It had been determined by then that axons grow to their targets unerringly under the response of guidance cues. What wasn’t known was the identity of any of these guidance cues. But a lot of techniques had been developed culturing neurons tracing, first of all for tracing them in vivo, for culturing them for making reduced systems that were potentially amenable to biochemical analysis.

The various co-culture systems and it seemed to me that it should be possible to take that problem head on and take a very classical biochemical approach of reconstructing guidance events in vitro and then using those in vitro assays as assays to purify the guidance factors. So my sense was that is something that is soluble in the near term whereas the problem of activity dependent rearrangement of synaptic connections was something that was going to be further down the road. So in a sense it was a very tactical decision at that point to focus on axon growth and guidance. I decided that’s what I wanted to do before I chose where I did my postdocs. So it was very deliberate in going to Tom’s lab. I wanted to work on that.

Narrator: Well, you would have been about 20 years too early if you had started trying to do the plasticity back in the late 80s.

That’s right. It would have been a long walk through the wilderness at that time. And interestingly, and this was my hope, of course, that perhaps at some point the mechanisms and rules that we would hopefully identify in the study of axon guidance might have some bearing on the problem of activity dependent rearrangements in plasticity. Which, in fact, turns out to be the case.

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.