Spring 2016

$10 Million Life Sciences Investment

Tufts biologist Michael Levin will lead one of two new Allen Discovery Centers in the nation

By Jacqueline Mitchell

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“We’re going to understand how cells and tissues decide what shape they’re supposed to build,” says Michael Levin. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Tufts University has received a $10 million grant, one of only two in the nation given by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen to fund research at the frontier of the life sciences.

Tufts developmental biologist Michael Levin, whose groundbreaking work on the bioelectrical control of development and regeneration could lead to medical breakthroughs in areas such as birth defects, cancer, traumatic injury and degenerative diseases, will lead one of two Allen Discovery Centers—the other is at Stanford University.

The Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University for Reading and Writing the Morphogenetic Code will focus on the role bioelectrical signaling plays in orchestrating how cells communicate to create and repair complex anatomical shapes—an area of inquiry that Levin says is “the key to most problems in biomedicine.”

“We expect this center to drive a fundamental change in how we investigate, teach and learn the quantitative biological sciences, and how we extend that knowledge.”

The ability of cell networks to process information and make group decisions is implemented by bioelectrical, chemical and other signals. Errors in this process can give rise to birth defects and cancer. By learning the bioelectrical language that cells use to coordinate their activity toward correct organ shape and placement, researchers will get closer to the control of growth and form in a wide range of applications.

“We’re going to understand how cells and tissues decide what shape they’re supposed to build, how they figure out what to do in order to make that shape, and how they know when they’ve achieved that shape and can stop growth,” says Levin, A92, the Vannevar Bush Professor in the Department of Biology and director of the Tufts Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology.

It’s been known for a long time that cells in the nervous system relay electrical signals throughout the body via rapid changes in voltage. But in their groundbreaking research, Levin and his colleagues demonstrated that similar communication by many different cell types in the body underlies pattern formation—that is, the complex organization of cells and tissues during embryonic development. They showed that such communication is key to maintaining and fixing cellular and tissue organization in adulthood as well.

Levin’s lab is trying to determine how bioelectric communication among cells can be controlled to potentially prevent or reverse birth defects, injury, cancer and even aging (see “Electrical Signaling in Cells”).

Among their most recent findings, Levin and his team prevented tumors from forming and reversed malignancies after they developed by using light to control electrical signaling among cells.

Levin says the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts will allow him to invest in the people and tools needed to make more breakthroughs in this emerging field.

The Allen Center will likely be a game changer for the life sciences at Tufts. “We expect this center to drive a fundamental change in how we investigate, teach and learn the quantitative biological sciences, and how we extend that knowledge,” says President Anthony P. Monaco, who also holds faculty appointments in biology and neuroscience.

The centers at Tufts and Stanford each will receive up to $30 million over the next eight years.

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