Inside Salk; Salk Institute

Executive Message

William Brody

In late October we completed our official 50th anniversary celebrations with an energizing, thought provoking symposium on the present and future of the life sciences. The three-day meeting featured presentations by two dozen of the world's leading scientists, who examined the near and far horizons of cancer research, neuroscience, immunology and virology, plant sciences, stem cell and developmental biology and metabolism research.

Opening keynote speaker David Baltimore, a Nobel Laureate who was one of the Salk's first resident researchers in the 1960s, spoke about witnessing the original construction and recalled working within the new Louis Kahn buildings with their intentional flexibility. The architecture "inspires its denizens to greater heights of creativity," said Baltimore, now a Salk Non-Resident Fellow. "I never cease to be awed by the buildings and the science within."

The symposium was the ideal way to wrap up the first 50 years of Salk science—by appreciating who we are and what has been accomplished here and by foreshadowing the decades of discovery ahead. I must thank professor Inder Verma for organizing this gathering of so many of the finest scientific minds, who represent research areas that are especially meaningful to the Salk.

At the culminating dinner event, we awarded the coveted Salk Institute Medals in Science and Public Service to two distinguished individuals—Robert Roeder of Rockefeller University and our own extraordinary board chair, Irwin M. Jacobs. Roeder is an acclaimed biochemist who studies the way genes are turned on and off in healthy cells and how gene expression breaks down in diseases like cancer. And Irwin, as you already know, is one of the most public-spirited people in America. Jonas Salk would have been immensely proud to recognize these men in this fashion.

Now, as we surge into our next half-century, we open this latest issue of Inside Salk with a report of astonishing findings by professor Fred Gage. He and his team discovered that in patients with Rett syndrome, the most physically disabling of the autism spectrum disorders, so-called jumping genes are given free rein to move about the genome of brain cells. Usually forced to stay put, these mysterious mobile DNA elements start inserting extra copies of themselves into random stretches of DNA, reshuffling the genome of neurons and possibly contributing to the baffling symptoms of the disease.

In a related study, Gage collaborated with colleagues from the University of California, San Diego, and successfully replicated autism in the lab with the help of human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells derived from patients with Rett syndrome. Their trailblazing experiments gave scientists an unprecedented view of autism by revealing that Rett neurons form fewer connections with other brain cells and that some of the symptoms are reversible, raising the hope that one day, autism may turn into a treatable condition.

Professor Gage's discovery compels us to wonder about what lies ahead in neuroscience and in each of the disciplines so ably populated by the gifted scientists of the Salk. To that end, Salk faculty and the colleagues who joined them at the recent symposium submitted their written predictions for research advances in the next 25 years.

Those predictions have been collected and placed in a time capsule that now resides in my office, to be opened in 2035. Let's look forward to reading them and evaluating their prescience together.