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3 renowned scientists recruited for cancer, physics and chemistry research at Rice

Three of the country's leading researchers in physics and chemistry have been recruited to Rice University, thanks in part to a grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

Physicists Herbert Levine and Jos Onuchic and chemist Peter Wolynes, all members of the National Academy of Sciences and currently on the faculty at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), will move their research laboratories to Rice's BioScience Research Collaborative (BRC).

Levine and Onuchic are co-directors of the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Physics Frontiers Centers program and will bring the core of that center to the BRC in stages over the next two years. In addition to continuing their basic research, they will collaborate with cancer specialists in the Texas Medical Center to apply new concepts from physics to cancer research and treatment.

The recruitment of Levine and Onuchic to Houston was made possible by a $10 million CPRIT grant awarded to Rice. CPRIT was approved by state taxpayers in a 2007 ballot initiative to provide $3 billion to support cancer research in Texas. The program includes grants designed to attract outstanding senior research faculty to academic institutions in Texas. Levine and Onuchic have been nominated as Established Investigators/CPRIT Scholars in Cancer Research, and their appointments are pending approval by CPRIT's Oversight Committee.

"Jos Onuchic, Herbert Levine and Peter Wolynes are unambiguously the best people in their fields," said Rice Provost George McLendon. "To be able to pull off one such hire is very difficult; to do three at once is miraculous. We are truly excited to bring their expertise to the work already under way at Rice's BioScience Research Collaborative, and we've very grateful to CPRIT for the generous support that made these exceptional hires a reality."

"Only the combined power of a world-class university like Rice, our new BioScience Research Collaborative and our connection to the Texas Medical Center in Houston could make recruiting the best biophysics team in the world possible," Rice President David Leebron said. "The research that will result from that combination will add immeasurably to our understanding of cancer at the most elemental level, which in turn will help improve our ability to prevent, treat and cure cancer all objectives set forth by CPRIT."

Levine's and Onuchic's research is complementary, and they plan to expand their focus to tackle complex issues in cancer progression and treatment. According to the two researchers, cancer is a complex set of diseases marked by changes at different scales. At the smallest scale, changes occur in molecules and genes, at higher scales they are seen in cells, and higher still in the tissues and organs that are made up of those cells. Levine and Onuchic led the biological physics community in devising an integrated picture of many model biological systems, and they hope to use a similar approach in developing an integrated view of the many changes caused in the body by cancer.

"The reality is that the new larger quantity of biological data cannot be analyzed in the conventional descriptive way," Onuchic said. "Theory needs to be integrated into cell biology and is needed to understand tissues and organs, and that is starting to happen more in medicine."

The cancer research community has recognized that collaborating with physical scientists is a way to achieve such a goal, which makes the BRC an ideal location for Levine and Onuchic's Center for Theoretical Biological Physics, McLendon said. The NSF supports university-based Physics Frontiers Centers so that the collective efforts of a larger group of individuals can make transformational advances in the most promising research areas, he said.

"As we help reinvent biology and figure out how physics methods can be used, these approaches will become widespread; today's frontier will become tomorrow's standards at the National Institutes of Health," Levine said.

A professor of physics at UCSD, Levine specializes in research on nonequilibrium processes with applications for a wide variety of biological systems. For example, he developed new theoretical approaches that help explain the directed cell motion of eukaryotic cells.

Levine has a Ph.D. and an M.A. in physics from Princeton and a B.S. in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the immediate past chair of the American Physical Society's Division of Biological Physics and recently completed a six-year term as associate editor of the Biophysical Journal. At Rice he will be the Hasselmann Professor of Bioengineering and will join the faculty in 2012.

Onuchic, also a professor of physics at UCSD, explores theoretical and computational methods for molecular biophysics, chemical reactions in condensed matter and gene networks. His research group introduced the concept of protein-folding funnels to show the types of amino acid sequences that can fold into a unique protein structure. Onuchic and his collaborators also created the concept of tunneling pathways and the methodology for reducing proteins into a combination of relevant tubes of pathways that provides a new way of designing electron transfer proteins.

Onuchic has a Ph.D. in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology and an M.S. in applied physics, a B.S. in physics and a B.S. in electrical engineering all from the Universidade de So Paulo. He was a co-director of La Jolla Interfaces in Science and a senior fellow of the San Diego Supercomputer Center. At Rice he will be the Andrew Hays Buchanan Chair of Physics and a professor of physics and astronomy. He will join the faculty around July 1.

Wolynes is the Francis Crick Endowed Chair in the Physical Sciences and distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCSD. His primary research area is in theoretical chemistry, and he is most well-known for his work on the protein-folding problem -- the "second half" of the genetic code. His energy landscape theory of folding shows how the forces within proteins guide them to their functioning structures. This theory has made possible the development of computer programs to predict the structures of proteins from their genetic sequences. Defects in folding key regulatory proteins are common in cancerous cells. Wolynes is currently exploring how similar ideas can be pursued at a larger length scale to understand the internal structures and motions of the cytoskeleton that gives cells their shape.

Wolynes earned a Ph.D. in chemical physics from Harvard and an A.B. in chemistry from Indiana University. He has honorary doctorates from Indiana University and Stockholm University. At Rice he will be the D.R. Bullard-Welch Foundation Professor of Science and a professor of chemistry. He also will join the faculty around July 1.

Opened in 2010 at the junction of Rice University and the Texas Medical Center, the BRC was designed to bring Rice's world-class bioengineering, chemistry, computer science and other research together with the medical research and clinical practices of other TMC institutions.


Contact: David Ruth
Rice University

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