Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern unveiled a new interdepartmental program in cellular neuroscience, neurodegeneration and repair on Tuesday.
The research initiative will be led by cell biology professor Pietro De Camilli and neurology professor Stephen Strittmatter. The two will retain their current departmental affiliations, and the new program will add seven new faculty members during the next few years to existing departments that conduct neuroscience research, De Camilli said. Yale neuroscientists said the program will fill a gap in Yale’s neuroscience research, but some said it was too early to tell how much it will affect the entire community.
Start-up costs for the program will total approximately $8 million, Alpern said. The funding will come from the Dean’s Office, which he said is currently approaching groups to obtain the money. The Dean’s Office will cover start-up costs for the seven new faculty, but their salaries will be paid by the departments where their primary appointments lie, Alpern said.
Advertisements will be placed in major medical journals for the new faculty, De Camilli said. Alpern said the search committees that will select the faculty to be appointed will be chosen by De Camilli and Strittmatter.
The program will focus on diseases afflicting the nervous system, organizers said. Strittmatter said the program’s first research priority will most likely be Alzheimer’s disease, and at least one of the first few new faculty members hired will likely focus on that research. Those familiar with the program said other areas to explore will include Huntington’s and Parkinson’s diseases, multiple sclerosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The new program will address the conflict between basic science and clinical research, De Camilli said.
“In order to understand disease, we need to know the basics of biology,” he said. “Traditional programs focused on neurodegenerative diseases are in clinical departments. We think the separation is no longer the right thing to do.”
But the traditional boundaries will not be completely broken. De Camilli said individual scientists will still focus on either basic or clinical research, but they will work in adjacent spaces. Strittmatter will move his lab to the Boyer Center for Molecular Medicine, De Camilli’s current location, and the seven recruited faculty will establish their labs there, too, De Camilli said.
Some Yale neuroscientists said the University has lacked a focus on neurodegenerative diseases.
“There’s not that many people studying that area here,” molecular, cellular and developmental biology professor Paul Forscher said.
Neurology Department chair Stephen Waxman said an increase in the University’s research on neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s was particularly needed.
Besides recruiting new faculty, the program will also include about four current Yale faculty. Their laboratories will not move to the Boyer Center, but they will still be “full citizens” of the program, De Camilli said. De Camilli declined to name the faculty members involved, saying discussions were still underway.
Alpern said in an e-mail to Yale’s biomedical community on Tuesday that the program will provide a “home” for the more than 100 neuroscientists across the University. Strittmatter and De Camilli said the program will be a center of excellence, serving as a “focal point” for neuroscience research.
“There will be a nucleus of people and equipment facilities,” Strittmatter said. “If anyone is interested in, say, Alzheimer’s or how neurons go awry, they will likely use them.”
Some neuroscientists said the program will not interfere with existing research.
“In a large family, some live in different houses, but hopefully it’s a happy one,” Waxman said. “Ours is.”
But others cautioned that it is too early to predict the program’s real value for the neuroscience community.
“A lot of times it’s just for PR,” Forscher said. “It really depends on how interactive the group is. If they collaborate with other people, it can have an impact.”
Alpern said the program has been in the works for approximately nine months, since the Medical School’s strategic planning process identified neurodegenerative diseases as an area for increased emphasis.