In an effort to add to Arizona's personalized medicine initiative, the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University and the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust have hired Harvard's Joshua LaBaer to head the new Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics. LaBaer will collaborate with teams from the larger Partnership for Personalized Medicine, which includes TGen in Phoenix and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
LaBaer, who is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and medical oncology, will step down as head of the Institute of Proteomics, a research program within Harvard Medical School that has been a leader in protein microarray development and functional proteomics. The main thrust of his work at ASU will be biomarker discovery and validation in the areas of lung cancer and diabetes.
"I think what they're looking for out there fits my interests quite well," LaBaer says. "I have a strong background in medicine, and I think personalized medicine requires some background there. I also understand proteins and how to work with them." He's hoping to further his work on protein microarrays as well as to collaborate with others on using immune capture and mass spec to find and monitor biomarkers in blood. "They're interested in developing new technologies, [and] there are not a lot of places that focus on new technology development," he adds.
The push in Arizona for personalized medicine, including a state-wide viral repository, was what drew LaBaer to the post. "What we now think of as single diseases are probably very heterogeneous," he says. "Eventually it will be crucial to have blood markers." The vast majority of diseases are difficult to study using tissue or nucleic acid specimens, he says. "Genomic DNA won't tell you whether you have [a disease] or you don't, or if you have it, what stage you have it. It will tell you your likelihood of getting it, maybe, but that's it," LaBaer says.
He plans to move out with a handful of people from his Harvard lab as early as this June, and then fill out the team once he gets there. "This is actually a return back to my roots," he says, having grown up in Phoenix. "I actually do like the West Coast. It's a different style of science and a different way of thinking."
He's also sold on the collaborative spirit that seems to infuse the area. "One of the advantages of going to a place that isn't as institutionalized as Boston is that people have to work together more," he says. "In Arizona, it's a real chance to pioneer something and build it from the beginning."