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With Robert Darnell, New York Genome Center Finds Local Talent for President, Scientific Director

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This story was originally published Nov. 28.

The New York Genome Center has appointed Robert Darnell as its first president and scientific director. He is the Heilbrunn Professor of Cancer Biology at Rockefeller University, one of the NYGC's institutional founding members, and a Howard Hughes investigator, positions he will retain. He is also a senior physician at Rockefeller University Hospital and an adjunct attending neuro-oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

As president and scientific director, Darnell will oversee all aspects of the nascent genome center, including its scientific and research activities and the recruitment of scientists. He will also join the center's board of directors. Nancy Kelley, the center's founding executive director, will take on the additional position of chief operating officer.

Darnell, a scientist and physician by training with a background in molecular biology, internal medicine, and neurology, is considered an expert in RNA regulation as well as in paraneoplastic neurologic syndromes, rare autoimmune diseases that are triggered by an immune response to common cancers.

He and his Rockefeller team developed a method called HITS-CLIP, short for high-throughput sequencing of RNA isolated by crosslinking immunoprecipitation, to map protein-RNA binding sites genome wide in vivo, which they published in Nature in 2008.

Prior to his appointment, Darnell was affiliated with the NYGC as an advisor, serving on its founding board and executive committee.

In an interview earlier last month, Darnell explained that "instead of traditional genomics and DNA sequencing and transcription, we are more interested in this 'dark matter' of the genome," or the 80 percent of the genome that is transcribed into RNA. But as a physician, he said, he also has an interest in how genomics interfaces with clinical medicine.

He said that in his own genomics work, he found the rate-limiting step to be not the generation of high-throughput data but the computational analysis. And while he was able to build his own bioinformatics team and computational network at Rockefeller, he felt that this approach was "a little flying by your shoestrings for a very critical problem," and it would make sense to team up with others under the umbrella of an organization like the New York Genome Center.

"Instead of a small number of clusters of bioinformaticists in each laboratory and at each institution, replicating each others' efforts and doing things from the ground up in each individual instance, if we pool our resources, we might be able to free up 80 percent of bioinformatic brains to try and harness all of this information in a higher, more organized, more professional, and more intellectually exciting way," he said.

Kelley told In Sequence in November that the NYGC conducted a "fairly extensive" search for a scientific director and was originally considering candidates from outside of New York.

But it became clear during that process that a director who is intimately familiar with the center's 11 member institutions – most of them based in the New York area – might be a better choice. "It was important … that they have good relationships with our institutional founding members, and also a good knowledge about the way that research and medicine work in New York City, which will be critical to our success," she said.

Darnell brings that experience to the table. Besides his affiliations at Rockefeller and Memorial Sloan-Kettering, he has roots at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, where he trained in internal medicine, and at Weill Cornell Medical College, where he received his training in neurology and remains an associate faculty member, and he has scientific collaborations with other founding members of the NYGC.

After taking up his new position, Darnell said, he will provide a detailed description of his vision for the center, but he was not yet ready to divulge much of it at this point. "I personally am interested in neurology, cancer, and immunology, and I think there is great potential in those, and potentially other areas," he said.

One goal of the center will be to serve as a high-throughput sequencing core facility for its members, an "essential and exciting core component," but it strives to be more than that, he said. "Our ambition is much higher, which is to … help clinicians and to help scientists really mine the data for clinically relevant information that can drive diagnosis and treatment, and for basic scientists [to provide] information that can drive new discovery."

In terms of its structure, the center will differ from other genome institutes, because it will serve as a hub for its numerous member institutions. Bundling their different approaches "will enable, on one hand, simple things like standardization of approaches to genomics, which is very important, and being able to interchange information," he said. "It will allow intellectual interchange, which I think is where new discovery comes from; and it will allow a common platform for sharing and taking clinical data, which we hope to drive towards the next generation of personalized medicine."

Asked how much of his time he will be able to devote to the new endeavor, Darnell quipped "all of it," noting that even though his previous positions had him working long hours, he still found time to train for the New York City triathlon last year, and "did OK on it."

Darnell described himself as "born and bred as a multi-tasker," adding that he's "a dual-career person to begin with, because I do take on the responsibility of being a physician and a scientist."

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