Johns Hopkins Medicine makes 'big bet' on basic science

$100M investment aimed at unraveling the mysteries of biology

Vanessa Wasta
Office phone

The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine plans to invest $100 million over the next five years to hire new faculty and support programs aimed at unraveling the mysteries of biology, the "basic" science discoveries that underpin virtually every major medical breakthrough, Hopkins Medicine leaders say.

Structural biologist James Berger, a professor of biophysics and biophysical chemistry at the School of Medicine, has been appointed to direct the Johns Hopkins institute dedicated to this effort, the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences, or IBBS. He succeeds Stephen Desiderio, who retired in July.

"We are at an unprecedented time when advances in technology have positioned us to make the greatest achievements in biomedical research that mankind has ever seen."
Paul Rothman
CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine

"The time is now to place a big bet on basic science research," says Paul B. Rothman, dean of the medical faculty and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine. "We are at an unprecedented time when advances in technology have positioned us to make the greatest achievements in biomedical research that mankind has ever seen."

The ability to read the genetic code of life with DNA sequencing technology costs nearly 1,000 times less than it did 10 years ago, and it takes mere minutes to get the results. Exceptionally high-powered microscopes and imaging technology have allowed scientists to envision the inner workings of cells more precisely. Scientists have also improved their ability to develop tools on the nanoscale and use concepts driven by data and mathematics to model biology.

"Our ability to discover, decipher, and visualize the molecular underpinnings of biology is key to the larger goal of improving human health," says Berger, who received his doctorate from Harvard University in 1995 and served on the faculty and directed a laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, until 2013, when he came to Johns Hopkins.

Berger's research interests focus on fundamental studies of DNA replication and chromosome superstructure and their control by small-molecule and biological regulatory mechanisms. He has trained more than 40 doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows who now have careers in academia, biotechnology, and other industries.

James Berger

Image caption: James Berger

Berger has authored or co-authored more than 160 peer-reviewed publications and serves as a scientific reviewing editor for the Journal of Molecular Biology and eLife. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

"The first step in research is to understand how and why biology works the way it does," says Berger, who has served as deputy director of IBBS since October 2017.

The five-year, $100 million investment by the School of Medicine is part of a new initiative dubbed Betting Big on Basic Science. Most of the investment will be used to support salaries and laboratory teams for newly recruited faculty members among the nine departments that form the institute. Other funds will be used to develop new graduate programs and to establish and equip the core facilities that provide access to sophisticated instruments and other research support.

"Our basic science departments have always been powerhouses of research," says Landon King, executive vice dean for the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine currently ranks second in National Institutes of Health funding at $462 million annually. IBBS faculty bring in about 20 percent of those funds.