Students, scientists glimpse a revolution in medicine

Students and faculty from the biology department joined top scientists and biotech professionals May 24 for a sneak preview of the latest developments in personalized medicine -- a field that could revolutionize the future of health care.

Personalized medicine is an emerging approach to health care that seeks to treat individuals based on their genetic makeup rather than their symptoms. It would tailor treatments and preventive measures for segments of the population based on their susceptibility to certain diseases and their responsiveness to particular drugs.

Photo of Chair of Biology Michael Goldman (center) with speakers Brian Kennedy, CEO at the Buck Institute (right) and Victoria Lunyak, associate professor at the Buck Institute (left).

Chair of Biology Michael Goldman (center) with speakers Brian Kennedy, CEO at the Buck Institute (right) and Victoria Lunyak, associate professor at the Buck Institute (left).

Those attending SF State's "Personalized Medicine 5.0" conference discussed a future when a patient might receive a prescription drug designed especially for them or receive cancer treatments based on careful reprogramming of an individual's genes rather than chemotherapy.


"The goal of this conference is to build networks among people to bridge theory and practice," said University Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Sue Rosser during the meeting's opening remarks. "Convening such partnerships and collaborations exemplifies what SF State does best."

The annual conference represents the biology department's growing links with industry in recent years, including the introduction of new degree programs geared toward the needs of California's thriving biotech sector. The meeting was an opportunity for students from the University's recently-introduced stem cell training program and professional science master's in biotechnology to learn more about the cutting-edge field of personalized medicine and network with industry professionals.

Keynote speaker Michael Snyder, chair of the department of genetics at Stanford University and director of Stanford's Center for Genomics and Personalized Medicine, shared his personal experience of genetic testing.

Over a two-year period, Snyder was the subject of his lab's research, undergoing regular testing that looked not only at his genome -- the entirety of his genetic code -- but collected thousands of pieces of data about his body's proteins, metabolic processes and antibodies. The data revealed that he was predisposed to type-2 diabetes, a condition that he developed during the course of the study.

"My genome did predict a risk," he said. "Because I was on the alert for this, I did catch it early and I adjusted my lifestyle accordingly. I'm glad it had a happy ending."

Brian Kennedy, CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, discussed his research on "anti-aging" genes and proteins, which he studies in such life forms as yeast, worms and mice. 

"What we are seeing … is that young animals have normal chromatin regulation," he said, referring to the process by which DNA is wrapped around proteins to form the genetic material that makes up chromosomes. "As aging happens there is the loss of this normal regulation and there's increased noise in the system. Looking at ways to maintain this youthful chromatin state is going to be an important new way of thinking about trying to delay the aging process and delaying the diseases of aging."

Like many of this year's speakers, Kennedy's research focuses on the biochemical changes that happen to DNA, influencing which genes are turned on or off. This field, known as epigenetics, was the theme of this year’s conference.

"The DNA sequence is only part of the story," said Michael Goldman, chair of the Department of Biology and one of the conference organizers. "There are changes beyond the sequence level that have profound implications for how DNA is expressed."

Other speakers discussed such topics as the role of epigenetics in cancer treatments and industry advances in diagnostics and medicines based on epigenetics research.

Now in its fifth year, SF State's Personalized Medicine conference was established by the Department of Biology in collaboration with several alumni who work in the Bay Area biotechnology sector.

"We have industry folks here, people from academic research as well as students and teachers. This conference is a true incubator for collaboration," said alumnus Dan Maher (B.A. '79), who helped organize the conference and is senior vice president of product development at BioMarin.

Held at the South San Francisco Conference Center, this year's meeting attracted more than 100 participants, who for the first time included Bay Area high school science teachers. The conference is in partnership with the City of South San Francisco, and has major sponsorship from Genentech, BioMarin and Swedish Biomimetics 3000.

More details about the conference can be found at

--Elaine Bible