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A $10 Million Investment in the Life Sciences

Biologist Michael Levin will lead one of two Allen Discovery Centers in the nation designed to speed the pace of discovery

Growing new eyes and limbs in place, preventing tumors from forming, slowing the process of aging—these are just some of the medical breakthroughs Tufts researchers will explore thanks to a $10 million grant, one of only two in the nation, given by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen to fund research at the frontiers of the life sciences.

The grant will fund the new Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University for Reading and Writing the Morphogenetic Code, which Tufts developmental biologist Michael Levin will lead.

The center will focus on the role of bioelectrical signaling in how cells communicate as they create and repair complex anatomical shapes—an area of inquiry that is "the key to most problems in biomedicine," says Levin, A92, Vannevar Bush Professor in the Department of Biology and director of the Tufts Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology.

"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.

The center will likely be a game-changer for the life sciences at Tufts, says President Anthony P. Monaco, who also holds faculty appointments in biology and neuroscience. "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," he says. "If we can unravel the mystery of how organisms develop and control their shapes, we may see significant applications to other biological phenomena, including disorders such as cancer and diabetes."

It's well-established 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 have demonstrated that many other cell types speak this same bioelectrical language during the complex organization of cells and tissues in embryonic development (called pattern formation) and during the maintenance and repair of that organization in adulthood.

Going further, Levin and his colleagues have shown that bioelectric signaling is also important in controlling gene expression and large-scale pattern regulation. That is, if our genes are the list of parts from which our bodies are built, bioelectricity coordinates the construction workers.

Levin's lab is now determining how to prevent and correct errors in the bioelectric signaling process that lead to genetic disorders and birth defects, degenerative diseases, aging, and cancer.

In March, Levin and his team reported that they had used light to control electrical signaling among cells and prevent tumors from forming, as well as reverse malignancies that had already developed.

Because the research program will focus not just on the molecular mechanism of cells during patterning, but also information processing and computation among them, Levin has picked a team with expertise in biology, engineering, and computer science. The collaborators include more than a dozen people in his own lab and another nine or so at Harvard University, Princeton University, and elsewhere.

The Allen Discovery Center at Tufts will receive up to $30 million over the next eight years, allowing Levin to invest in the team and the tools needed to make more breakthroughs in this emerging and highly cross-disciplinary field, he says. The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group will also invest up to $30 million in a second Allen Discovery Center at Stanford.