Institute names new director

Mike Enright

Although he’s probably not as internationally famous as soccer superstar David Beckham, fellow English émigré Jonathan Slack is hoping to score at the University’s Stem Cell Institute.

After making the trip roughly a month ago, Slack, who isn’t technically a stem-cell scientist, has been officially named the institute’s newest director.

“I’m what is called a developmental biologist, and that means somebody who’s interested in how animals develop, and by extension how humans develop,” Slack said.

Distinct from stem-cell biology, the two fields are closely related, and when it comes to his area of expertise, Slack literally wrote the book.

In 2001, he penned the first edition of the textbook “Essential Developmental Biology,” one of three used to teach the subject at colleges around the world.

Slack, whose research interests include regeneration mechanisms and pancreatic development, said he came to the University because the academic environment is fruitful for transforming basic research into clinical applications.

“Everybody said the winter is terrible in Minnesota, but I ignored them, and it didn’t seem to be that bad, the part of it we were here for,” he said.

Neither did tighter U.S. restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research – compared to Great Britain’s – deter him from taking the University position.

“It’s true that a lot of people said to me, ‘Why are you going to America?’ ” Slack said. “I suppose the answer is, really, I don’t work on embryonic stem cells myself, so it’s not going to impede my personal research being here.”

Embryonic stem-cell researcher Meri Firpo, who is affected by federal funding limitations, said faculty members are happy to see Slack come to Minnesota.

“We’re really excited he’s here,” she said. “We think this is a really positive thing.”

And since Slack and Firpo share some related research interests, she was especially pleased he took the position, she said.

“Getting a new colleague in your field is always nice to see,” Firpo said. “We hope to collaborate in the future, and now are doing projects that are certainly parallel to each other, and we can use the information back and forth.”

credentials

Jonathan Slack, the new director of the Stem Cell Institute at the University, has an impressive résumé, including the Waddington Medal, which is the only national award in developmental biology.

-B.A. Biochemistry, University of Oxford 1971
-Ph.D., The University of Edinburgh 1974
-Staff Scientist, Imperial Cancer Research Fund 1976-95
-Professor of Developmental Biology, University of Bath 1995-2006
-Head of the Department of Biology & Biochemistry, University of Bath 2000-06
-2002 Waddington Medal Recipient for outstanding research performance as well as services to the subject community
-Fellow of the United Kingdom Academy of Medical Sciences (FMedSci) 2004

Fellow institute scientist Dr. Dan Kaufman said while he doesn’t have any plans to cooperate with the new director yet, he thinks Slack is the right person for the job.

“I think he comes in as a very strong new director for the institute,” Kaufman said. “I think he was an excellent choice for the position.”

Slack’s distinct background helps him bring a fresh perspective, he said.

“To some degree, his coming here with his degree in developmental biology will add more emphasis on sort of the basic research applications of stem cells, which is a large part of what needs to be done in this field now,” Kaufman said.

He said in the long run, focusing on such basic research will be a plus.

“There’s a lot of emphasis on ‘we’re going to create blood cells or pancreatic cells or heart cells tomorrow, or next week,’ and there’s obviously a lot of work that needs to be done before we get to that point,” he said.

In addition to his research role, Slack said part of being the Stem Cell Institute director means advocating for both greater research approval and funding, even if it means lobbying the Legislature.

“Nobody knows in research what’s going to work and what isn’t, and it’s very important to follow all of the available possibilities,” he said.

Slack succeeds former director Dr. Catherine Verfaillie, who has gone on to lead research efforts at the University of Leuven in Belgium, but who continues to maintain a faculty position at the University of Minnesota institute.