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Whitehead Institute gets $2M grant

The W.M. Keck Foundation of Los Angeles recently awarded $2 million to the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research to establish and equip a new facility for biological imaging.

The new W.M. Keck Facility for Biological Imaging represents the first phase of a long-term initiative in biological imaging involving the Whitehead Institute, the School of Engineering and the Department of Biology.

"The leadership gift from the W.M. Keck Foundation greatly expands our capabilities in microscopy, which will have profound effects on our research programs in cancer, infectious disease and development," said Dr. Gerald R. Fink, professor of biology and director of the Whitehead Institute. "In addition, the gift provides critical support for our emerging partnership with MIT faculty in bioengineering and material sciences."

Professor Paul T. Matsudaira, a member of the Whitehead Institute who holds joint appointments in biology and engineering, will be director of the new Keck facility. "We're on the threshold of a new era in biological imaging," he said. "For the first time, we will be able to watch single molecules carry out their tasks inside living cells, visually dissect the machinery that reads our genes, and begin to explore how biological systems can help solve non-biological problems."

"This work also will lead to exciting new developments in bioengineering. For example, it will provide a foundation for creating new materials, based on strategies evolved over millions of years to produce, store, and move essential materials inside living cells."

Provost Dr. Robert A. Brown, formerly the dean of engineering, and Professor Douglas Lauffenburger, co-director of MIT's new Division of Bioengineering and Environmental Health (BEH), have been the catalysts of the joint effort from the engineering side. Together with Professors Fink and Matsudaira, they are developing the ground work for Phase II of the biological imaging initiative, a $20 million project that includes a complementary imaging center at MIT and new faculty and instruments for both Whitehead and MIT.

"We are all grateful to the W.M. Keck Foundation for recognizing the importance of this work and providing the leadership necessary to move it forward," said Professor Lauffen-burger. "When we're finished, Whitehead and MIT will have one of the foremost visual biology facilities in the world. Together, we will train a new generation of biologists and engineers dedicated to expanding the benefits of new imaging technologies for medicine, biotechnology, agriculture, manufacturing, and other fields."

The new tools of visual biology also will benefit the Human Genome Project, according to Dr. Matsudaira. The Whitehead/MIT Center for Genome Research has made major contributions toward mapping and sequencing genomes, and visual biologists will take this work one step further. The new facility will house a program in structural genomics (combining functional genomics and imaging), which will use cryoelectron microscopes to determine the three-dimensional organization of large protein machines and light microscopes to track the assembly and movement of key cell structures.

The facility will provide common ground for Whitehead structural biologists, who view the world at the atomic level, and cell biologists, whose vision heretofore has been limited to large cell structures--such as the nucleus and mitochondria. With powerful cryoelectron and 4-D light microscopes, the tiny "specks" that make up the cell's machinery for manipulating DNA, making protein molecules, and interacting with the outside world will leap into focus. Whitehead's cell biologists are primed with research projects on cancer, birth defects, diabetes, heart disease, and viral and fungal infections that will move forward as soon as the new microscopes are installed.

The W.M. Keck Foundation is one of the nation's largest philanthropic organizations. Established in 1954 by the late William Myron Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company, the foundation's grantmaking is focused primarily on the areas of medical research, science and engineering. The foundation also maintains a program for liberal arts colleges and Southern California organizations.

In 1996, Robert A. Day succeeded his uncle, the late Howard B. Keck, as chairman and president of the W.M. Keck Foundation. Under Mr. Keck's and Mr. Day's leadership, the foundation has made grants of approximately $700 million while its assets have grown from $250 million to more than $1.4 billion today.

At the Whitehead Institute, the W.M. Keck Foundation previously has provided generous medical research grants to fund the Whitehead Fellows Program and to establish and equip the W.M. Keck X-ray Crystallography Suite.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 23, 1998.

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