Research Day VII Pushes Science Boundaries

J. Craig Venter, PhD, attended the poster session after his keynote speech in which he said, "Your genome is really you."

Can scientists create life? Predict who will fall ill decades in advance? J. Craig Venter, PhD, a pioneering geneticist who works on the frontiers of medical science, tackled these questions and more Feb. 5 at Research Day VII, which celebrated the spirit of scientific achievement at Cedars-Sinai.

Venter's keynote address drew a record audience of more than 400 to Harvey Morse Auditorium, plus two overflow rooms, for the annual event. His speech was followed by a poster session displaying more than 100 research projects at Cedars-Sinai.

Renowned as a primary force behind the effort to map the human genome, Venter is founder, chair and CEO of the J. Craig Venter Institute. This nonprofit company, with offices in Rockville, Maryland, and San Diego, is devoted to advancing genomics and understanding its implications for health and society.

Venter and Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD, now director of the National Institutes of Health, led separate teams that simultaneously published in 2001 the sequence of the human genome. In doing so, they cataloged the genes that make up humans — our genome. Since then, among other firsts, Venter and his colleagues have assembled a synthetic genome of a bacterium and used it to create the first synthetic cell by replacing a bacterial cell's own DNA with the synthetic one. The resulting cell, as described in a 2010 paper in the journal Science, adopted the synthetic DNA as its own, assembled proteins and made copies of itself.

"They're quite stunning," Venter said of the cellular creations. "They reproduce rapidly." At the time, the New York Times called Venter's achievement "another step in his quest to create synthetic life."

Venter said he is trying to change the shape of medicine by translating genetic data into useful knowledge. During his lecture, he showed slides of crude 3-D images of individuals' faces that were constructed based on their genetic information. Height and age also can be approximated from this record, he added. "Your genome is really you," he said. Venter said he is working with forensic scientists to apply these findings to help identify individuals.

The poster session showcased the breadth and depth of scientific work at Cedars-Sinai.

Another of his companies, Human Longevity Inc. in San Diego, is marketing personal health profiles to customers that combine analyses of their genomes, their medical histories and sophisticated clinical imaging. The aim is to improve longevity by detecting and predicting illnesses, especially cancer and heart disease, that cause most deaths.

"We've found two people with greatly dilated aortas," Venter said. "Our goal is to predict these diseases in the genome alone, without these tests."

Despite the potential, medical applications of genetics are not without perils, Venter indicated. Just because we can edit or remove genes doesn't mean that we should do so in humans. "We don't know enough about the genome," he cautioned.

Venter's speech was "a spectacular talk that laid out ideas that used to be science fiction and are going to be here before we know it," said Kenneth Bernstein, MD, director of Experimental Pathology and professor of Biomedical Sciences and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, who introduced Venter. "He's an individual who thinks way outside the box."

Leon Fine, MD, vice dean of Research and Graduate Research Education and chair and professor of Biomedical Sciences, said, "Research Day has become one of Cedars-Sinai's flagship events. The invited speakers are among those of the highest scientific reputations in the nation and the world."

The event also showcased the breadth and depth of scientific work at Cedars-Sinai and encouraged networking among investigators. Posters shed light on breast cancer, bone regeneration, sudden cardiac death, retinal degeneration and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), among many other topics.

Manisha Tripathi, PhD, and Alexander Montes, a research lab assistant, viewed a poster in Harvey Morse Auditorium.

"I'm excited to see all the types of work that my colleagues are doing," said Harry Matundan, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher who presented a poster on Kawasaki Disease, a serious childhood illness. "We bounce off ideas from each other, and it fosters collaboration." Matundan works in the laboratory of Moshe Arditi, MD, executive vice chair of research and professor in the Department of Pediatrics.

Awards were presented for the best research posters. The winners were: