Biologist Thinks Big, Wins Cash


Bruce Lahn won third place in Merrill Lynch Forum's first annual Innovation Grants Competition for his proposal to create a male oral contraceptive.

Most young scientists will eagerly pursue a challenge, and geneticist Bruce Lahn is no exception. However, he doesn't limit himself to stalking the obvious challenges. He also searches out the kind of challenge that could prompt the reexamination of an entire field. "I'm not interested in solid research," Bruce says. "I'm interested in crazy research: research that results in paradigm shifts, new approaches, and such."

This willingness to tackle a problem from new directions, to approach it forward, backward, and sneak attack, if necessary, contributed to the success of Bruce's application to the Merrill Lynch Forum Innovation Grants Competition. It can also be seen in Bruce's decision to leave Beijing University in the mid-1980s, where he was a leader in the student movement, and to come to the United States as a Harvard University undergraduate.

Although his protests against the Chinese government ended, Bruce doesn't see himself as having forsaken political activism. Instead, he hopes that one day, through his reputation as a scientist, he will gain a platform from which to comment upon the situation in China. "I thought it was better to actually engage in something concrete that I knew for sure would benefit China and the world at large," he says. "Someday, if I become a recognized scientist, I could speak influentially about the political situation in China."

Born in 1968 in China's Anhui province, Bruce is the son of two physicists. Bruce recalls making a very conscious decision as a teenager that he wished to enter biology rather than physics because it held the greater challenge. "It was obvious 10 or 15 years ago that most questions in physics had pretty much been answered, whereas biology was kind of like a new world. You didn't know what could show up."

He received his B.A. in biology from Harvard in 1991 and then entered the Ph.D. program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In his second year of graduate school, he joined David Page's laboratory at the Whitehead Institute, where his focus was on the gene content and chromosomal abnormalities of the human Y chromosome. During his years as a doctoral student, Bruce's discoveries increased the number of known Y genes from 8 to 20 and also shed new light on the evolution of the human sex chromosomes. This ultimately led to published papers in Science, Nature Genetics, and several awards to young investigators, including the Innovation Grants Competition prize.

Bruce first heard about the competition from an e-mail announcement forwarded to graduate students. Initially, he dismissed it. But a subsequent conversation with a friend who received the same notice got him thinking. He knew that one of the genes he was looking at on the Y chromosome produced an enzyme essential to spermatogenesis. If that process could be interrupted chemically, it could form the basis for a male oral contraceptive, just as the birth control pill now works by disrupting ovulation.

Completing his application to the contest took about 2 weeks. His research into the obstacles that would need to be overcome in order to develop such a drug consisted of reading articles about contraception and male fertility in the popular press and on the Internet as well as in the scientific literature. One of the hurdles to developing an oral contraceptive, he discovered, was the widely held perception that men would refuse such a pill. Surveys showed this to be untrue, however.

Was this type of market research, far from the rarefied air of the genetics lab, interesting? "It was very interesting!" Bruce says. "I have a sense now why past research [into a male oral contraceptive] has stalled. It's both a scientific and a social problem. The competition really made me think about these real-world issues and I definitely think that was a very educational, helpful experience."

Bruce graduated from MIT in 1998, worked another year in Page's lab as a postdoc, and is now in the process of setting up his own laboratory at the University of Chicago, where he is an assistant professor in the department of human genetics. For the most part, he is leaving his work on the Y chromosome behind as he casts his eye on new projects.

"Now I'm venturing into what I think are the big questions in biology," Bruce says. "For example, we're trying to understand the genetic basis of human intelligence. The way we're going to do that is to compare humans with other primates to see what are the functionally important changes, the evolutionary changes in genes that have occurred over 6 or 10 or 20 million years." And that's just for starters. Bruce is also spearheading an initiative to build an institute for the study of mouse genetics on a very large scale. In a third research project, Bruce's lab will examine neurogenesis, the development of the brain. In particular, his lab will look at which early lineages in neural development give rise to various structural components of the brain.

Does he have a background in neurobiology? "No, but why not?" Bruce laughs. "That's my attitude. The jungle of science is big enough so that every monkey should be able to find a branch." And it may be that Bruce's talent is his willingness to see branches where others dare not look.

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