James I. Morgan, Ph.D.
James I. Morgan, Ph.D.

Since its founding in 1962, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has had a focus on basic and translational science. From molecular advances to innovative therapies, St. Jude scientists have pioneered discoveries that have saved children’s lives.

In fact, treatments developed at St. Jude have helped push the overall childhood cancer survival rate from 20% when the hospital opened to 80% today, according to its scientific director and executive vice president, James I. Morgan, Ph.D.

St. Jude recently announced that ground will be broken this year on a new $412 million research facility in Memphis, TN. The building will be designed as an interactive hub of exploration and discovery to cultivate research and collaboration, as well as attract scientists and clinicians to St. Jude.

GEN recently interviewed Dr. Morgan about the types of technologies and projects that will be the focus of the new facility. He oversees the institution’s basic science programs and related research efforts.

GEN: How will the new research center expand on your current scientific and clinical capabilities?

Dr. Morgan: Two cornerstones of St. Jude are our willingness to collaborate and share information freely, both internally and externally. The advanced research center will continue to embrace this philosophy.

We have state-of-the-art technologies, expert faculty, extraordinary core facilities, and funding to pursue innovative ideas. Nevertheless, biomedical research frequently requires that we introduce new technologies and incorporate emerging fields of research.

Through its sheer size and scale, the advanced research center will allow us to meet these challenges. The center will accommodate up to 90 new research teams and enable us to develop programs in fields such as RNA biology, epigenetics, and metabolomics. Furthermore, the center will strategically position investigators and their associated technologies to maximize collaboration.

Our aim was to enhance visual transparency both within and between floors. We will arrange areas around shared resources so researchers can connect with one another. A feeling of openness and transparency is enhanced through the use of interior glass walls and natural light from a courtyard and skylights. Bridges and open staircases span the atriums and link interaction zones.

Key technologies and support facilities are arranged to foster cross-disciplinary use. Finally, all areas of the building feature advanced information technology systems and visualization tools to facilitate information sharing and collaboration.

GEN: What kinds of specialized equipment will be brought into the new center?

Dr. Morgan: The new facility will accommodate essential resources, including:

  • a center for advanced genome engineering;
  • an induced pluripotent stem cell derivation and differentiation facility;
  • an advanced light microscopy and image analysis core, housing lattice light sheet, and correlative and super-resolution microscopes, integrated with high-speed IS infrastructure, computational, and visualization tools, all to establish one of the most advanced, integrated microscopy centers in the world;
  • an immunometabolism core with mass spectrometry and Seahorse technology; and
  • a flow cytometry core.

The center will also be uniquely positioned to perform integrated preclinical cancer trials, develop additional models of cancer, and monitor outcomes and drug responses.

GEN: Are there any other instruments or equipment systems that remain on your wish list?

Dr. Morgan: We are fortunate to have the resources required to bring necessary instruments and equipment into our research facilities.

However, we know that instruments and technologies evolve. This was a challenge when planning for a building four years prior to its opening. To “future proof” the center, two floors and part of the basement will be shelled for future growth. We have identified optimal locations for current and future instrumentation that might be sensitive to interference from vibration, EMF, light, or fluctuating temperature, and have designed them appropriately. Thus, the advanced research center is expected to serve the institution’s needs in the short and long terms.

GEN: What roles do biotechnology and molecular biology play at St. Jude?

Dr. Morgan: The understanding of cellular function is paramount in our quest to eradicate childhood life-threatening diseases. The investment in support of technology at St. Jude is paralleled by its commitment to advancing basic and translational research. Most recently, St. Jude established the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology to lead efforts to elucidate normal cellular functions and determine how those functions are impaired in disease.

The department’s research illuminates the molecular basis of basic cellular processes such as RNA dynamics and mRNA transcription and translation, mitochondrial function, and autophagy and cell death. In the advanced research center, investigators in this department will be juxtaposed with other researchers who have complementary interests such as immunology, neurobiology, and developmental biology.

GEN: What kinds of research technologies (e.g., CRISPR, immunotherapy, epigenetics) are currently used at the hospi-tal, and which new research technologies will be enabled by the new center?

Dr. Morgan: St. Jude researchers are using the latest and most advanced research technologies to accelerate discovery for cures to childhood life-threatening illnesses.

Immunotherapy—Our scientists and clinicians have been studying antibody and immune cell-based therapies for more than a decade, and have been using immunotherapy treatments for various forms of cancer.

Epigenetics—In addition to research into the molecular and structural underpinning of epigenetic processes, St. Jude researchers are also studying genetic and epigenetic contributions to pediatric solid tumors such as retinoblastoma and hematological malignancies, including acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

CRISPR—Our Center for Advanced Genome Engineering enables our investigators to educate, assist, expedite, and perform genome engineering technologies, including the CRISPR-Cas9 technology. We will continue to develop and introduce emerging genome editing technologies and applications to the St. Jude community.

The advanced research center will enable St. Jude to continue to pursue advances in epigenetics, genomics, precision medicine and immunotherapy.

GEN: Besides cancer, what other diseases does St Jude treat?

Dr. Morgan: St. Jude is one of the world’s premier centers for the research and treatment of pediatric cancer and other catastrophic childhood diseases such as sickle cell disease, influenza and HIV.

Cancer. St. Jude is the first and only National Cancer Institute–designated Comprehensive Cancer Center devoted solely to children. The Cancer Center at St. Jude works to translate basic science discoveries into curative therapies for children with cancer, while minimizing long-term side effects.

Sickle cell and other blood disorders. St. Jude has been researching sickle cell disease since the hospital opened and houses one of the largest pediatric sickle cell programs in the country. In 1983, a St. Jude patient was the first in the world to be cured of sickle cell anemia through a stem cell/bone marrow transplant. The hospital has also used gene and stem cell therapy approaches for clotting deficiencies and immunodeficiency syndromes.

Infectious diseases. Our influenza program leads the U.S. efforts against pandemic influenza and collaborates with the World Health Organization in tracking emergence of new influenza strains. Novel vaccines for parainfluenza viruses, respiratory syncytial virus, influenza viruses and pneumococcus are under development.

The institution is also home to a nationally recognized comprehensive clinical care and research program for HIV-infected children and adolescents.

GEN: Lots of people do not know about the role that the late comedian Danny Thomas played in the development of St. Jude. How would you rate his importance to St. Jude and and what kind of impact did he have in getting the ball rolling for St. Jude to grow and flourish?

Dr. Morgan: Danny Thomas, entertainer and founder of St. Jude, envisioned a hospital that would treat children regardless of race, color, creed or their family’s ability to pay—and a facility where research would shine light into the darkness.

Since 1962, St. Jude has made incredible strides in the research and treatment of childhood cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Mr. Thomas left us with an enduring legacy and commitment to saving the lives of children everywhere. Through projects like the advanced research center, we continue to honor his vision as we move closer to reaching a day when no child dies in the dawn of life.

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