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Director's Report - 2012

Any account of the events of 2012 must begin with what is officially called “posttropical cyclone” Sandy, but more appropriately named “Superstorm Sandy.” It reached the north shore of Long Island in the evening and night of Monday October 29 with devastating effects. Trees fell throughout the area bringing down power lines and causing extensive blackouts. More than 30 trees fell at Banbury including one that fell on the roof of Robertson House; fortunately, this was the only building damaged by the storm. We lost power in the evening of October 29, and the Banbury office thus moved into temporary quarters in the Meetings and Courses offices in Grace Auditorium. Because we could not move back to Banbury until November 14, two Banbury Center meetings had to be cancelled—the first time that we have had to do so in at least 25 years, and two meetings were moved to the main campus.

A tree falls on Robertson House
The grounds crew face the task of clearing the debris
Trees reduced to chippings

Nevertheless, 2012 was still a busy year for Banbury with 18 meetings, two Watson School of Biological Science courses, six summer courses, and 10 other events. The 517 meeting participants were drawn from 30 states in the U.S.A. and from 19 foreign countries.

There have been a number of Banbury Center meetings that have dealt with science-related issues rather than research
Ken Sonnenfeld and Sydney Brenner
topics. Among the most notable are those on patenting. The first meeting, Patenting of Life Forms, was held in October 1981, and the second, Intellectual Property and Biotechnology, was held in 1991. Norton Zinder was prescient when he spoke on “Using Data from the Human Genome Project” at the 1991 meeting. The patenting of human genes and gene sequences has become an area of great controversy, highlighted by the recent Myriad case involving patents covering the BRCA gene and the decision in the Prometheus case. Thus, the 2012 meeting on Patenting Genes: New Developments, New Questions was particularly timely, examining the current state of gene patents, especially those covering diagnostic tests and the implications of whole-genome sequencing.

Maynard Olson and George Weinstock
Another meeting relating to human genetics was held in May. Jim Watson, Mila Pollock, and I have been advancing the argument that as the Human Genome Project (HGP) was one of the great scientific accomplishments, it more than justifies serious historical analysis. A major preliminary to such a study would be locating and cataloging materials relating to the HGP. This has been explored in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust Library. Another component must be recording the personal experiences of scientists who worked on key aspects of the HGP, and Watson proposed that this should be done as soon as possible. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation became interested in the archival project and the book of essays about the HGP. The suggestion was made that we should explore a possible long-term project to produce a history (or histories) of the HGP which will be useful and interesting to the public and scholars. This meeting, "Toward a History of the Human Genome Project", was funded by the Sloan Foundation with the goal of laying the groundwork for such a book and other media productions. We brought a particularly interesting set of participants for the discussions, including those involved with the HGP (scientists, bioethicists), as well as archivists, historians, and publishers of books and documentaries. The participants helped to define the purpose of the book, what would distinguish it from other HGP books, its audience, and style.

Robert Stickgold & Suzanne Nalbantian
A third meeting that was not directly based on biomedical research was organized by Suzanne Nalbantian: Interdisciplinary Symposium on Literature, Memory, and Neuroscience. This was a follow-up to a meeting held in 2007 on "Memory in Neuroscience and the Humanities", the thesis of which was that just as the neuroscientist explores the physical workings of the brain with the tools of electrophysiology and molecular biology, so writers and artists explore and record the mental experiences of human beings. The 2012 meeting, held under the auspices of the International Comparative Literature Association, continued this theme, with, for example, papers on “Marcel Proust and Memory: A Neuropsychological Perspective” and “Nonconscious Memory and the Surrealist Mind.”

Cancer meetings continue to have a large role in the Banbury Center calendar and 2012 was no exception. The firs
Danny Weinberg, Mark Ptashne,
Jim Darnell, Rick Young
cancer meeting, "Transcription and Cancer", examined how the new insights in transcriptional and chromatin biology that have come with the application of modern analytical techniques may pave the way for the development of therapies directed against transcription factors. These have been traditionally thought of as undruggable, but participants in this meeting faced up to the challenge of developing direct-acting inhibitors of gene regulatory complexes.

The metabolism of cancer cells has held a fascination ever since Otto Warburg’s observations in the early part of the 20th century that cancer cells metabolized glucose via glycolysis even in the presence of oxygen. This is a general metabolic feature of cancer cells, but its causal relationship to the origins of cancer cells and cancer progression is still unclear. However, understanding this process better could lead to the identification of new therapeutic targets. The main objectives of the meeting “Regulation of Metabolism in Cancer” were to discuss (1) biophysical and biochemical studies of the unique metabolic requirements and pathway utilizations of transformed cells, (2) emerging sequencing and computational technologies that can rapidly analyze cancer genomes and transcriptional profiles, and (3) biomedical informatic and physical approaches to integrating the metabolic, genomic, and transcriptional interactions of cancer.

Patricia Keely
It is generally thought that a key event in the development of cancer is the transformation of cells from an epithelial state to having the properties of mesenchymal cells. This epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) is accompanied by the loss of epithelial cell junction proteins leading to weakening of cell adhesion and an increase in cell motility. Furthermore, cellular sensitivity to multiple targeted therapies, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy has been shown to be governed by the extent to which cells have undergone an EMT transition. Resistance associated with cellular plasticity and heterogeneity has been observed in multiple systems derived from adenocarcinomas and squamous carcinomas. Participants in the meeting “Cell Plasticity in Cancer Evolution” discussed data on the molecular and pathobiological significance of cellular plasticity in carcinomas, and how to explore, and exploit for treatments, the signaling pathways that promote cell plasticity.

The year of Superstorm Sandy was a hard one for us all. Janice Tozzo and Pat Iannotti continued the work of the Banbury office while Basia Polakowski had to cope with the tree that came crashing down on the Robertson House roof. It was the grounds crew of Sonny Leute, Fredy Vasquez, and Joseph McCoy, assisted by reinforcements from the main campus, who bore the brunt of the effects of the storm, and three months later, they were still removing tree trunks and branches. Jon Parsons and Connie Brukin continue to be indispensable for AV and photographs, respectively, and Culinary Services and Housekeeping cope admirably with the rapid turnover of guests.

Jan Witkowski
Executive Director