Tufts Receives $10 Million to Study Life Sciences

Biologist Michael Levin will lead one of two new Allen Discovery Centers in the nation, focusing on electrical control of cell and tissue growth

Michael Levin

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 an Allen Discovery Center—the other is at Stanford University. Both centers will be funded by Allen’s latest philanthropic venture, the Seattle-based Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group.

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.”

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 cancerous growth. By learning the bioelectrical language that cells speak 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 the maintenance and repair of 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 repair birth defects, injury, cancer and even aging. The approach also has implications for synthetic bioengineering. “Once we understand how shapes are made, we will be able to direct this process to make whatever shapes we want,” he says.

For the past several decades, biomedical research has focused on the role of chemical signals in development and disease. But Levin and his colleagues have shown that bioelectric signaling is also an important factor 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.

The ability to manipulate cells’ bioelectricity would eventually enable researchers to grow new organs in place, including eyes and limbs, by employing the same processes that flatworms, salamanders and other creatures already use to regenerate missing structures. In addition to providing insight into the evolution of body plans, exploiting bioelectrical circuits to override default cascades of activity also opens the potential for circumventing genetic disorders and preventing or arresting diseases of patterning, which include birth defects, degenerative diseases, aging and cancer.  

Among their most recent findings, Levin and his team this month reported that they had prevented tumors from forming and also reversed malignancies after they had developed by using light to control electrical signaling among cells. The researchers used frog models, because tumors in frogs and mammals, including humans, share many of the same characteristics, such as rapid cell division, tissue disorganization, increased vascular growth, invasiveness, and an abnormally high electric charge. Similarly, Levin, Dany Adams—a research associate professor in the Department of Biology—and their co-authors recently revealed the bioelectric mechanism underlying craniofacial birth defects that result from mutations in cells’ ability to maintain normal voltage.

Levin says the new Allen Discovery Center at Tufts will allow him to invest in the people and tools needed to make more breakthroughs in this emerging and highly cross-disciplinary field. A key focus of the research program will be to understand the information processing and computation among cells during patterning, not only their molecular mechanisms. “I already have a team picked with a lot of diverse expertise,” comprising biology, engineering and computer science, he says. 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 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. “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, and even further, to large-scale, complex systems involving high-level controls above the cellular level.”

Allen, who co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates in 1975, announced his major investment in the biosciences—$100 million in all over the next decade—at a news conference at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C., on March 23. The Allen Discovery Center at Stanford will focus on bacteria, human immunity and antibiotic resistance. The centers at Tufts and Stanford each will receive up to $30 million over the next eight years. Other individual scientists, including the geneticist who helped discover the CRISPR gene-editing technique, will receive grants ranging from $1 million to $1.5 million to support their novel research.

Jacqueline Mitchell can be reached at jacqueline.mitchell@tufts.edu.

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