Columbia University Medical Center

Tom Maniatis: A Deep Sense that Science Must Be Shared

New Frontiers: Columbia, Genomes and Personalized Medicine

Tom Maniatis at New York Genome Center Launch

Tom Maniatis helped Nancy Kelley, founding executive director, launch the New York Genome Center in 2011. Photo courtesy of New York Genome Center

From the days of sharing the techniques of recombinant DNA with the world, to improving human health through biotech ventures, “Tom has had a deep sense that science must be shared,” Axel says.

That commitment is now moving in new directions at Columbia, where Maniatis moved in 2010 after spending 30 years at Harvard.

One reason for relocating, Maniatis says, is the transforming impact his sister’s death in 1993 from ALS had on his life. Initially, he helped the ALS Association as a consultant, but he later jumped into ALS research himself, devoting half of his lab’s time to the search for the causes of ALS.

“The Motor Neuron Center at Columbia was a huge attraction,” Maniatis says. “I was going in the direction of molecular neuroscience, and there is no better place in the world to do that than Columbia.”

As chair of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, Maniatis is also shaping the future of the department, which underwent a seismic shift a few years ago when its neuroscientists formed a new Department of Neuroscience. Although these faculty members remained in the Department with joint appointments, it was clear that future appointments in neuroscience would be focused in the new department.

“It was clear that in addition to the traditional strength in structural biology, the Biochemistry department would take on new directions, so I took the opportunity to strengthen our department in systems biology,” Maniatis says. “All aspects of biology are moving toward a system-wide approach, and we have worked closely with Prof. Andrea Califano and Barry Honig to recruit outstanding young system biologists to Columbia.”

Systems biologists can’t function without data, however, and that set Maniatis on another public service mission: establishing a genome center for all of New York City.

“It’s amazing, but New York was left out of the picture at the start of the genomics revolution in the 90s,” Maniatis says. “It is difficult for individual institutions to maintain cutting edge genomic facilities because of the cost and rapid obsolescence of the technology”. In addition, the interpretation of the massive amount of sequence data requires major advances in bioinformatics and systems biology, which is best accomplished through cooperation between multiple institutions.”

To help Columbia and the City, Maniatis teamed up with Nancy Kelley (the current executive director of the center) to co-found the New York Genome Center (NYGC). The NYGC is an unprecedented collaborative effort in New York that brings together 11 scientific and medical institutions, including Columbia and New York-Presbyterian, to collaborate and share genomic infrastructure.

Once it is up and running at full capacity in 2013, the center will be one of the largest sequencing and analysis facilities in the country. Maniatis and Lee Goldman, MD, dean of the faculties of health sciences and medicine at CUMC, serve on the Board of Directors of the NYGC, and Maniatis chairs the Scientific Steering Committee.

“The potential of personalized medicine is a big driver behind the idea of the center,” Maniatis adds. “Unfortunately, personalized medicine was overhyped when the human genome was sequenced in 1999, and right now, sequencing DNA outpaces our ability to analyze the data and find drugs. However, it’s now starting to happen. We will be able to mine the data for medical breakthroughs, but more slowly than initially predicted.”

“I have enjoyed working on initiatives that have a broad impact on science and medicine throughout my career, and I believe that the New York Genome Center will have such an impact on human genetics and genomics and the treatment of cancer and genetic diseases”.