Viviana Gradinaru (BS '05), Lois and Victor Troendle Professor of Neuroscience and Biological Engineering and director of the Center for Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience at the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at Caltech, has been named the new director and Allen V. C. Davis and Lenabelle Davis Leadership Chair of the Richard N. Merkin Institute for Translational Research (MITR).
Established by a grant from Caltech trustee Dr. Richard Merkin, the Merkin Institute's mission is to maximize the full impact of Caltech discoveries and biomedical inventions to better the human condition. Gradinaru takes the reins from Barbara Wold (PhD '78), Bren Professor of Molecular Biology, who served as director and Allen V. C. Davis and Lenabelle Davis Leadership Chair of the Merkin Institute for four years.
"Dr. Merkin's generous and timely gift in 2019 empowered Caltech researchers from all divisions to launch and translate research—first on COVID-19 and then across the full spectrum of engineering, computation, chemistry, and biology—pertinent to health and biomedicine," says Wold. "In the launch phase it has been incredibly exciting for MITR to catalyze projects and clinical collaborations—66 projects—across the arc from initial discovery work and proofs of concept to first-in-human trials and commercialization. Equally important for Caltech has been expanding the community of translational scientists at all career stages, currently at 45 faculty, 36 postdoctoral fellows, and 53 grad students, along with four MD/PhDs. My hope is that translation will continue to be part of their research programs far into the future, led by Viviana's vision and her personal experience in successfully translating her own inventions."
From 2015 to 2021, Gradinaru was a Heritage Medical Research Institute (HMRI) investigator, a program funded by Merkin to support scientists working on problems with direct relevance to human health. The HMRI program was the predecessor to the establishment of the Richard N. Merkin Institute for Translational Research.
"I am grateful for this opportunity to serve Caltech through the Merkin Institute, and I am looking forward to help springboard Caltech's outstanding science and engineering research closer to solutions needed by patients," Gradinaru says.
"I'm very excited to welcome Dr. Gradinaru as the new director of the Institute," says Merkin. "I can think of no one better suited to this position. I've had the opportunity to know her as an HMRI investigator. The right person will have a combination of vision, intellect, drive, and focus. Many scientists have one or two of those elements, but few have all four. Dr. Gradinaru is one of those few. I look forward to incredible progress under Dr. Gradinaru's leadership and her enthusiasm for discovery!"
We asked Gradinaru to expand upon her thoughts about the future of the Merkin Institute at Caltech under her leadership.
What research projects are you most excited about supporting through the Merkin Institute?
In particular, I'm excited by how gene therapy is "coming of age." We will see a lot of solutions for patients that are not only treatments; they are actually cures. They go to the root of the problem, replacing or fixing faulty genes. And it is very important that these solutions are delivered in the right amounts to the right locations. The Merkin Institute is supporting a particular project that can achieve tunable gene expression via synthetic biological circuits. I'm very excited for the next stage to enable its translation towards safe and effective genetic cures via next-generation precise, tunable gene therapy.
My own neuroscience research has been supported by Dr. Merkin since 2015. That support was instrumental for us to start addressing what I think is one formidable barrier towards restoring and maintaining a healthy brain throughout an increasing lifespan: How do we deliver much-needed therapies to the brain through the stringent blood-brain barrier [BBB]? That work has already enabled us to engineer viral vectors that can deliver genetic cargo from the bloodstream to the brain safely, by avoiding the liver, and, most recently, to understand various natural mechanisms to cross the BBB that we can next recruit for nonviral delivery of therapeutics to the brain.
Outside of neuroscience, there are many diverse projects I'm equally excited about. For example, unique measuring methods and hardware can monitor key biomarkers for bone density or fertility from easy-to-collect samples—such as sweat or urine—which would provide fast and convenient diagnostics, for example, for diseases such as osteoporosis. Such projects originated in the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences and the Division of Engineering and Applied Science and really show how, at Caltech, all fields can contribute greatly to human health, including those that aren't necessarily biology or chemistry.
What upcoming areas of research do you see the Institute exploring in the next five years?
We're currently seeing a revolution in artificial intelligence [AI], and it's a very active area in Caltech's research. When we pair AI-based methods applied to protein folding and drug design with basic biology projects through the Merkin Institute, we have the possibility to bring science closer to solutions needed by patients, on unprecedented timelines. Once you discover a mechanism or target through basic research, whether for disease diagnosis or correction or for delivery of medicines, you can now use AI to fast-forward predictions that can quickly be tested in the lab. For example, understanding the mechanisms underlying transport across the BBB can also allow us to block pathogens like viruses and bacteria from accessing these brain-entry pathways. AI could be applied to databases of existing pathogens and their likely molecular evolutions against the growing BBB transport-receptor catalog to anticipate outbreaks of pathogens with neuropsychiatric consequences and prepare chemical blockers or vaccines. AI allows us, in a way, to predict and experiment with the future—as in biological possibilities—now, and buys us time to act on such knowledge with unprecedented efficacy and speed and steer clear of, maybe, the next pandemic.
Why is Caltech a particularly powerful place for translational research to flourish?
Caltech is known to germinate entirely new fields of sciences, through our faculty but also through our students and postdocs in their post-Caltech careers: from engineering useful proteins through directed evolution, for which Frances Arnold [the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry] won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2018; to discovering the biological substrates that allow us to feel touch and heat, a breakthrough for which Ardem Patapoutian (PhD '96) received a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2021. Now through the Merkin Institute, we have a vehicle to channel such discoveries into novel ways to understand and improve the human experience. I'm grateful for Dr. Merkin's support of basic science from the earliest stages and his long-term vision for the deployment of science learnings throughout our society for increasingly affordable health care solutions for all.