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Q+A: Lawrence Marnett, PhD

Posted by on Wednesday, February 28, 2018 in Around the Medical Center, Winter 2018 .

Photo by John Russell

Lawrence Marnett, PhD, University Professor of Biochemistry, Chemistry and Pharmacology and Mary Geddes Stahlman Professor of Cancer Research, is Vanderbilt’s first Dean of Basic Sciences, which comprises four biomedical science departments, eight centers and 18 research cores. Marnett was named dean in April 2016.

Can you please describe a formative moment from your career in science?

After I earned my PhD in chemistry I went to do a post-doc in Stockholm in the lab that discovered prostaglandins. In my first week there I was measuring the oxygen content of a tissue extract and I added a little of the substrate for the enzyme that makes prostaglandins. The oxygen concentration just plummeted, telling me that in 15 seconds all the material I’d added had been converted to products. I remember thinking that organic chemists take months to synthesize prostaglandins, and I just made them in seconds. From then on I was hooked on biochemistry.

What’s distinctive about Vanderbilt’s organizational structure for basic biomedical science?

Basic science departments are struggling at many academic medical centers, due to the pressures on clinical revenue. So at Vanderbilt the decision was made to move the basic sciences organizationally and financially into the University and structure the funds flow so there is a stable, predictable source of support for operations and investment. I think it was a brilliant move. Other institutions have considered this, but they haven’t been able to pull it off.

What dictates the direction of basic biomedical science?

I think first of all it’s what the important questions are. A lot of basic science is driven by curiosity — people trying to understand how things work, but focusing on problems that are important for understanding health and disease. The other driver is technology; technological advances have completely changed the questions that we can ask and the speed at which we get answers.

What’s currently shaping basic biomedical science?

Certainly the ability to sequence DNA rapidly from patient material has transformed the way we can understand how certain diseases like cancer occur. That’s a huge important trend. Revolutionary advances are enabling us to look at molecular complexes in their native state, even sometimes within a cell, and this helps us to understand their function. The ability to translate fundamental discoveries into a diagnostic reagent or a preventive or therapeutic agent is another trend; the technologies that used to be only in industry have now migrated into universities and academic medical centers, so it’s possible to move from discovery to translation in a way that wasn’t possible 25 years ago. And with CRISPR/Cas we’ve converted the machinery that bacteria use to fight off viruses into a tool that enables us to edit genes in their normal genomic location. We can knock out or change gene function, and this represents an extraordinarily powerful strategy for studying basic questions in biology and medicine. In fact, this same technology is moving toward clinical development.