He’s captained research powerhouses like the Salk Institute and the USC/Norris Cancer Center. Now Brian E. Henderson is taking the Keck School’s neurogenetics juggernaut on its maiden voyage.
Most physician-administrators would blanch at the enormity of the assignment: Oversee the creation of a $45 million research institute and the building to house it. Bring together USC’s considerable (but diffuse) prowess in preventive medicine, genetics, neurosciences and clinical medicine. Recruit 30 star scientists who’ll catalyze an already remarkable research team. Oh, and personally do some important science on the side.
But for Brian E. Henderson, this sort of all-out effort is second nature. The founding director of the Keck School’s Neurogenetics Institute has, in a sense, already been there, done that: First as co-founder of the Los Angeles Cancer Surveillance Program (CSP), the 25-year-old database that collects and analyzes information on all new cancer cases in the county. Later, at the helm of the USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, which he turned into one of the leading institutions of its kind. And recently, as president of the San Diego-based Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
The talented science administrator is no less talented as a scientist. Considered a world authority on cancer epidemiology, Henderson plans to stay elbow-deep in research.
“I’m a working scientist,” says the professor of preventive medicine, who holds the Kenneth T. Norris Jr. Chair in Cancer Prevention. “I believe that I need to be doing legitimate work myself in order to interact with the other researchers and recruit new talent to join us in our efforts.”
Those efforts will focus on unrav-eling the degenerative neurological disorders that occur when the delicately wired nervous system experiences shorts and disconnects.
Easier said than done. Researchers say up to 60 percent of the 100,000 genes carried in our cells are involved in the workings of the central nervous system.
“We’re not going to be able to tackle but a fraction of these,” admits Henderson. Instead, he plans to build the Neurogenetics Institute on the back of the Human Genome Project – taking candidate genes from that enormous effort and applying to them one of the Keck School’s greatest strengths: its collection of huge population databases.
Most of these were developed to study cancer, Henderson says, “but it’s totally reasonable to use them to look at neurological disorders as well.”
Take serious states of anxiety, for instance. “Right now, we don’t know what genes cause anxiety,” he says. “So we treat people with drugs aimed at various neurotransmitters in the brain.” It's like using an elephant gun to go after a mouse. But if USC researchers could pin down an anxiety gene, drugs could be created to go after only that gene or its products. “This type of therapy wouldn’t have as many side effects,” Henderson explains. “It would be very specific, right on target.”
Anxiety is just one example of the neurological prey Henderson — and hence the Neurogenetics Institute — plans to stalk. “Addiction, mental illness, Alzheimer’s, glaucoma...,” he goes down the list of dread neurodegenerative diseases. “To design drugs that will really work, we will need to hunt down specific genetic targets for all of these and more.”
Henderson has no doubts that it can and will be done, here at USC.
“I’ve learned a lot over the years about building good programs,” says the Institute of Medicine member and 1999 recipient of the Presidential Medallion, USC’s highest honor. “Once you get it started, it takes on a life of its own.”

Related Stories

Triple Challenge for a Dynamic Duo

A Gift for the Future (Pg. 1)

Doctor Make-It-Happen

Related Links

Keck School of Medicine of USC web site

Features --Keck School of Medicine -Admissions -Bravo! Bravo - Thornton School of Music
Departments -- Mailbag - On Stage - What's New - In Support - Alumni News - The Last Word -