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June 28, 2000

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Aravinda Chakravarti Named Head of Genetic Medicine Institute

--Expert in bioinformatics to lead Hopkins genomic research

Aravinda Chakravarti, Ph.D., an expert in computational biology and a geneticist renowned for his studies of predisposing genetic factors in such common and complex human diseases as diabetes, heart disease and mental illness, has been named director of The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine's new McKusick-Nathans Institute for Genetic Medicine.

Chakravarti, 46, begins his stewardship of the institute September 1, and will also hold the title of professor of medicine at the Hopkins School of Medicine. He has been James Jewell Professor of Genetics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH.

"This week's news about the mapping of the human genome gives even more force to the need to harness the power of genomics to the cause of human disease, and Dr. Chakravarti is an outstanding leader of the new generation of scientists who will make this happen," said Edward D. Miller, M.D., CEO/Dean of Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Victor A. McKusick, M.D., University Professor of Medical Genetics at Hopkins and one of the two Hopkins pioneers in genetic research for whom the Hopkins Institute is named, called the appointment "innovative and creative." Chakravarti, said McKusick "will provide leadership in the area of common disorders, all or most of which have genetic predisposing factors. And he is a leader in the new field of bioinformatics, which has been spawned in large part by the need to analyze the enormous body of information contained in our DNA and just now being spelled out by the Human Genome Project."

Chakravarti's research interests have concentrated on common diseases that arise from a combination of genetic and non-genetic factors. "The complex pattern of inheritance of most human diseases suggests multigenic inheritance, requiring the interaction of several unlinked genes and environmental factors," he has noted. Because these diseases also involve usually tiny alterations in genes that encode proteins within very specific pathways, Chakravarti has investigated the complex interactions among these proteins by developing and applying genomic and computer-based means of finding and identifying these multiple genes.

Another major focus of his research is the development and use of methods to generate efficient genetic maps of complex traits and diseases in isolated human populations. Two examples are efforts to map and identify genes involved in certain forms of deafness and epilepsy in Old Order Mennonites of Lancaster County, PA., and of high blood pressure in Mennonites and Israeli Arab communities.

Born in Calcutta, India, Chakravarti's professional journey began with a Ph.D. in human genetics from the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, TX in 1979. After a postdoctoral year at the University of Washington in Seattle, he joined the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh in the Department of Biostatistics and later the Department of Human Genetics as a professor. He moved to Case Western Reserve in 1994.

A past associate editor of the American Journal of Human Genetics, Chakravarti is currently one of the editors-in-chief of Genetic Epidemiology and Genome Research. He serves on the advisory editorial boards of the European Journal of Human Genetics and Human Molecular Genetics and is a member of the National Institutes of Health Mammalian Genetics Study Section.

He is married to Shukti Chakravarti, Ph.D., a cell and molecular biologist and assistant professor of medicine and genetics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, who will join the faculty of the Hopkins School of Medicine. The couple has two daughters, Priya and Indira. The McKusick-Nathans Institute, announced in January, 1999, unites nine centers, scores of physicians and scientists, and budgets worth tens of millions of dollars to consolidate much of the genetic disease research, education and treatment enterprise, now widely spread throughout Hopkins, under a single institutional umbrella

In naming the new institute the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine, Hopkins jointly honored two pioneer faculty members whose work in the lab and at the bedside over the past 40 years helped transform a fledgling scientific specialty into the driving force of medicine.

Eventually, the Institute will have a permanent physical home in a new research tower, for which ground was broken last month on the Johns Hopkins medical campus.

By most accounts, medical genetics as a recognized medical specialty was developed at Hopkins by McKusick, who was among the first to link the unusual cardiovascular and skeletal symptoms of a known inherited disease -- Marfan syndrome -- with a single defective gene. He was also the first to create a published database of genetic information in people, helping to lay the groundwork for the Human Genome Project.

Daniel Nathans, M.D., a molecular geneticist long known for his work with animal virus genetics, earned a Nobel Prize in 1978 with Hopkins colleague Hamilton Smith for using enzymes as biochemical "scissors" to cleave and thus analyze DNA. The work ushered in the genetic engineering revolution of the last two decades. Nathans, who died in November 1999, also received the National Medal of Science, this country's highest scientific award

Centers and programs to be consolidated in the new institute include the Center for Inherited Disease Research, which offers gene analysis and interpretation services for scientists hunting for complex disease genes in a joint operation with the NIH; the Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man Project, a database used globally to share findings; the Clinical Program in Genetic Medicine; a Residency Program in Genetic Medicine; the Greenberg Center for Skeletal Dysplasia, which unites research, diagnosis and care of patients with congenitally short stature; the Center for Craniofacial Development and Disorders, whose physicians investigate normal skull and facial development and the genetic events leading to malformations; the DNA Diagnostic Lab, which specializes in testing for 14 genetic conditions and their carriers; the Predoctoral Training Program in Human Genetics, which is turning out the physicians and researchers who will lead the next generation's genetic research and treatment; and The Genetics Resources Core Facility, a scientific "superstore" providing biochemical reagents and other products for researchers, as well as a cell culturing, DNA analysis and research planning service.

Hopkins has a long-standing tradition of pioneering in human genetic medicine: in recent years, Hopkins scientist Bert Vogelstein, M.D., was the first to pinpoint genes for inherited colon cancer. Hopkins researchers were the first to assign a gene, for the Duffy blood group, to a specific chromosome, setting off worldwide interest in gene mapping. Barton Childs, M.D., the head of Hopkins' first division to study and treat pediatric congenital disease, discovered a key rule of chromosome biology in 1963: that only one member of an X chromosome pair is active. The idea of the variability of the gene for the neurological disease, Huntington's chorea, a key diagnostic step, took place at Hopkins, as have many of the earliest trials of gene therapy for cystic fibrosis and gene-based vaccines for certain kidney cancers.


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