Leading genetics explorer Kenneth Berns to direct UF Genetics Institute
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Dr. Kenneth Berns of New York City, known for pivotal genetics discoveries and the development of gene-transport molecules for use in gene therapy, has accepted an appointment as director of the campuswide University of Florida Genetics Institute.
Berns will assume the administrative position by Sept. 1, Win Phillips, UF vice president for research, announced today.
Berns is a former UF vice president for health affairs and dean of the College of Medicine. The former head of the genetics institute was Dr. Terence Flotte – now chairman of UF’s pediatrics department – who worked with Berns and state officials to establish the institute in 1999. Berns has served as president and chief executive officer at Mount Sinai Medical Center, CEO at Mount Sinai Hospital and CEO of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. He currently is a professor of genetic research at Mount Sinai Medical Center.
“Berns has influenced major developments in experimental gene therapy during the past two decades, and gained world recognition for discoveries that have paved the way for safe and potentially effective gene therapy for a variety of devastating human diseases,” Phillips said. “He is a leading player in all of the world’s leading scientific academies related to genetics and microbiology, including the National Academy of Sciences and its Institute of Medicine.”
Said UF Provost David Colburn: “Berns brings extraordinary qualifications to the director’s position in genetics. He is widely regarded nationally and internationally for his research and administrative leadership, and he has the perspective as a scholar and administrator that will be invaluable in our efforts to build one of the leading genetics programs in the United States.”
Berns, who holds both a medical degree and a doctorate in biology from The Johns Hopkins University, and eminent scholar Nicholas Muzyczka won international recognition for work they performed at UF in the early 1980s when they modified the adeno-associated virus, or AAV, for use as a vector for carrying corrective genes. More recently, UF medical geneticists have proven the safety of gene therapy – with use of the AAV vector – in the world’s first gene therapy trial in patients with cystic fibrosis. Studies of the latter disease are ongoing.
The U.S.-patented vector is now used by scientists worldwide in gene therapy, and UF produces the world’s reference standard AAV vector with National Institutes of Health support.
Enthusiastic about returning to Gainesville, Berns said he hopes to help the UF Genetics Institute – with several hundred faculty researchers – becomes one of the world’s significant contributors of new knowledge regarding the genetics of people, animals, insects and plants.
“The genes in plants, people and animals are quite comparable, and hence we need to increase collaboration among the scientists exploring genetic makeup and gene expression in various species,” he said. “We plan to build on UF’s strengths in these areas of research in the privately funded Powell Gene Therapy Center, the UF Center for Mammalian Genetics, the colleges of Medicine, Liberal Arts and Sciences (particularly chemistry), Pharmacy, Dentistry and Veterinary Medicine, and the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.”
Berns said research will be greatly expanded in the broad field of evolutionary genetics, led by botany professors Pamela Soltis and Douglas Soltis, who are leaders in a worldwide Floral Genome Project aimed at generating new insights into common gene functions in plants and the origins of variations among diverse species. As key players in this project funded by the National Science Foundation, the Soltises are collaborating with scientists and students in nine countries to answer ecological and evolutionary questions at all taxonomic levels.
The UF Genetics Institute already is on the map for identifying genetic abnormalities linked to insulin-dependent diabetes, inherited eye diseases, kidney stones, Parkinson’s disease, recurrent tumors associated with neurofibromatosis and tooth decay. One significant example was the successful use of gene therapy to generate sight in sheep dogs born blind because of a rare, inherited eye disorder. The accomplishment was reported in 2001 by eminent scholar William Hauswirth in UF’s ophthalmology department.
Successful use of gene therapy in mice with an often-fatal genetic disorder called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency – reported in 1999 by UF medical researchers – set the stage for upcoming clinical trials, which also will be the first in the world.
At the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, or IFAS, research breakthroughs include genetically modified wheat plants that produce more grain than conventional wheat plants with the same amount of fertilizer, an achievement expected to benefit developing countries where nitrogen fertilizer is a costly nutrient. Aided by a $5 million National Science Foundation grant, IFAS researchers also are investigating how genes control development of corn and other cereal grains, the source of about 90 percent of the world’s food supply.
IFAS researchers have won U.S. patents for the use of a group of genes in grapevines expected to make the plants resistant to a fungal disease that is endemic in the Southeast, and for genetically engineered bacteria that produce a high yield of ethanol from sugarcane residues, wood waste and other organic materials. The latter research by microbiology Professor Lonnie Ingram, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, has led to a licensing agreement with a commercial firm.
Berns returns to campus at a time when genetics research stands to gain another major boost through the upcoming construction of a major new building to centrally house the majority of basic researchers in the disciplines of genetics, cancer and biotechnology. A great deal of collaborative investigation among these scientists is expected to be expanded in the larger facility.