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Celebrating 25 years of biomedical innovation at Stanford’s Beckman Center

Beckman dinner - small"Innovation in the Biosphere," a recent symposium organized to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine, attracted a standing-room-only crowd eager to listen to leading researchers in the biosciences. The February 23 gathering was so packed at the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge that live streaming had to be set up to accommodate the many faculty, PhDs and guests that arrived to hear from the impressive list of multidisciplinary presenters.

The symposium was designed to celebrate the concept of information transfer, while acknowledging the many innovations and breakthroughs in immunology, stem cell science, chemical biology, and imaging technology through the years.

The event was conceived by National Medal of Science winner Lucy Shapiro, PhD, the Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Professor of Cancer Research and director of the Beckman Center. "I cannot believe 25 years have gone by," said Shapiro. "We thought we knew so much."

Shapiro, the co-organizer of the event, credited Paul Berg, PhD, Nobel Prize-winning professor emeritus in biochemistry, and others with starting the center. The Beckman Center was founded in 1989 "at a time of great expectation" to promote the exchange of ideas across diverse scientific disciplines, based on the notion that innovation transcends traditional academic boundaries. Here's Shapiro:

What has changed so dramatically is our understanding of how the biological world codes, decodes, and uses information in time and space to create and maintain life on this planet. And almost everything we do comes down to mining information and dealing with not only vast amounts of data but very small molecules and small circuitry.

The bedrock of what it means to be a living entity is an understanding of how a cell or tissue functions as an integrated system. No longer is it enough to study the biochemistry of specific reactions. Or a specific event. Or an overall function that happens when a tissue turns into something else. We now have to understand all these parts as an integrated, logical process.

Investigators from Stanford, UC-Berkeley, UCSF, and other institutions shared their research on the design principles of cellular networks, the manipulation of genetic circuitry to re-engineer life, and the genetic circuitry that establishes the blueprint of a living cell. They explored the deep reading of the genome to mine the information in living things and in creating life from scratch.

Steve Quake, PhD, Lee Otterson Professor and event co-organizer, talked about precision measurement in biology and his work in noninvasive prenatal testing that has caused amniocentesis rates to plummet. Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, the D.H. Chen Professor, discussed using optogenetics to manipulate the circuitry in the brain, with implications for anxiety, depression, and drug abuse. Carla Shatz, PhD, Sapp Family Provostial Professor, discussed "New Synapses in Old Brains," delving into the brain circuitry that processes information and new ways of exploring neurons to offer hope for Alzheimer's disease.

Berg, whose work in recombinant DNA helped launch the biotechnology industry and earned him the 1980 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, said that Beckman Center researchers have made the early dreams a reality. He recognized the commitments that played a critical role in the center's inception: the lead gift from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation and support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The center was completely funded by private sources. He also mentioned three individuals who deserved special recognition in creating the center: Donald Kennedy, PhD, president emeritus of Stanford University; David Korn, MD, dean emeritus of the School of Medicine; and John Ford, Stanford's former vice president of development.

Speaking to the researchers in the audience, Berg said, "To those who still enjoy the thrill of discovery, I wish you good luck."

The symposium was followed by an evening gathering with more than 80 representatives from Silicon Valley's biotech and science industries, government, and academia who came together for an intimate celebration of the 25 year legacy of the Beckman Center. Dinner was served against a backdrop featuring a large-scale projection of vivid and dazzling cellular images generated from biomedical science research at Stanford. Several speakers gave remarks on the advantages of Stanford's collaborative multidisciplinary environment and acknowledging the role of philanthropic support in fueling innovation, highlighting the ongoing need to empower the future of science through the Campaign for Stanford Medicine's Biomedical Innovation Initiative.

For more information on the Stanford Biomedical Innovation Initiative, visit here.

Debra Black has been a senior development writer at Stanford Medical Center Development for the past seven years. She helps support the efforts of the Campaign for Stanford Medicine.

Previously: National Medal of Science winner Lucy Shapiro: "It's the most exciting thing in the world to be a scientist" and Why basic research is the venture capital of the biomedical world
Photo from evening event by Francine Freeman

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