Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology celebrates 50 years

History was made 50 years ago at Baylor College of Medicine when its first basic science department was founded when Dr. Bert O’Malley left Vanderbilt University in snowy Tennessee to establish the Department of Cell Biology.

A change in climate would not be the only transformation they would experience as they developed and built the department which would later become the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Baylor.

When Dr. O’Malley arrived, he took over what used to be the Department of Anatomy, responsible for anatomical training of medical students. The new department was housed in the old anatomy labs, becoming the first Department of Cell Biology in the country.

Dr. O’Malley sought to apply the principles of the then-embryonic field of molecular biology to the study of animals and humans, moving on from bacteria and yeast in which the field had originated. The department was one of the first places in the world with technology capable of cloning cDNAs, and later, genes.

Several faculty came with him from Vanderbilt including Drs. Jeffrey Rosen, Anthony Means, William T. Schrader, Larry Chan and Stanley Glasser. The department rapidly built a team of researchers to take on the emerging field, soon hiring Drs. Ming and Sophia Tsai, JoAnne Richards, Robb Moses, Stanley Glass, Jim Clark, Ernie Peck, Lutz Birnbaumer and David Bullock. Dr. Vincent Pirotta also was hired, and was the first drosophila geneticist in the Texas Medical Center.

They also hired cell biologists Drs. Bill Brinkley, Joe Bryan, Bernie Gilula and Bessie Huang. The department continued teaching anatomy, cell biology and neurobiology to medical students with the help of Drs. Claire Huckins, who later was appointed dean, and Carl Harvey.

“Over the past 50 years, the department has published thousands of studies, leading the development of the field of molecular endocrinology toward our current understanding of the molecular actions of hormones,” said Dr. Peggy Goodell, professor and chair of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Baylor.

The department contributed to the understanding of cell signaling pathways, of cell structure and function, how cells form and divide and how they were differentiating and specializing. Deep study of the large family of steroid hormone receptors across the department revealed fundamental aspects of the effects of steroid hormones in many tissues, and how they contribute to cancers, including breast, ovarian, liver and prostate cancer.

“This work also helped transform our view of how transcription factors work in collaboration with co-activators and repressors,” Goodell added.

The department eventually grew to almost 40 faculty, later changed its name to Molecular and Cellular Biology and became one of the top-funded basic science departments in the U.S.

“It has been an honor to lead this department over the past three years. I hope to continue the legacy of excellence and scientific leadership at the frontiers of cell biology and cancer research,” said Goodell. “It has been a privilege to bring to the department several new faculty working in cutting-edge areas, such as cancer signaling and metabolism, immune control of viruses and cancer, stem cell biology, chromatin regulation and membraneless organelles. It has been exciting to see the new technology they have brought, to see their labs grow and the first results from their own trainees emerge.”

While there have been many changes over the years — from humble beginnings in an old anatomy lab to the collaborative group of advanced labs and researchers today — a commitment to science and health hasn’t changed or the fortitude to support new ideas and ways of thinking that established the department so many years ago.

“As we continue to move forward, we will carry those founding principles, paving the way for new scientific findings, collaborative research and an inviolable commitment to improving our department as we seek new discoveries to improve human health,” Goodell said.

Dr. Peggy Goodell, professor and chair of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, wrote this in a letter to colleagues marking the department’s 50th anniversary.