NEW YORK – Cancer starts in our DNA: in the genetic mutations that turn our cells against us. But that’s not the whole story. Recent discoveries have revealed other biological processes that set the stage for cancer – not by altering our genes, but by changing which genes are switched on or off. Shaped by our experiences, these epigenetic modifications can be passed down from generation to generation. And they can potentially be reversed, offering an exciting new frontier for treatment.
To further this emerging field, Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute today announces that neuroscientist Bianca Jones Marlin, PhD, an expert in epigenetics, has been named the new Herbert and Florence Irving Assistant Professor of Cell Research at the Zuckerman Institute.
“It’s an honor to be named an Irving Professor and to join my fellow Zuckerman Institute colleagues in representing the vision of the late Herbert and Florence Irving,” said Dr. Marlin, a principal investigator at Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute. “Exploring how a learned behavior becomes an innate part of our genetic identity has remarkable translational value in relation to the multi-pronged battle against cancer.”
She joins three other colleagues recently celebrated by the Irving Cell Research Program for their discoveries. Her work promises to advance our understanding of both cancer and neural disorders.
“We are really excited to see Bianca join the Irving Cell Research Program at the Zuckerman Institute,” said Zuckerman Institute Director and CEO Rui Costa, DVM, PhD. “Her innovative work on how learned trauma can be passed to the next generations has tremendous implications for biomedicine, from brain science to development and oncobiology, and beyond.”
Dr. Marlin earned her graduate degree under the direction of Robert Froemke, PhD, at the NYU School of Medicine, where she published groundbreaking work on how the hormone oxytocin influences the brain and, consequently, social behaviors: such as how mouse mothers treat their young. During a postdoctoral fellowship in the lab of Columbia Zuckerman Institute codirector Richard Axel, MD, she researched how trauma and stress can affect not just an individual, but be passed down from generation to generation, via epigenetic modifications.
As she sets up her own lab at the Institute, her research focuses on this transgenerational epigenetic inheritance: specifically, how trauma in parents alters the brain structure and sensory experiences of their future offspring. She has found evidence, for example, that when a mouse learns to associate a smell with an unpleasant experience, its offspring will be born with brains having more cells that respond to that smell.
“A complex and often mysterious process, transgenerational epigenetics is one way in which the experience of a parent can be passed to their offspring. A more thorough understanding of these mechanisms can help us understand how cancer cells are passed from one generation to the next,” said Dr. Marlin, who holds appointments in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University and the Department of Neuroscience at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. “In turn, these insights have the potential to open up new possibilities for the development of life-saving and life-prolonging treatments against cancer. I am excited to be a part of this journey and look forward to collaborating with my fellow Irving Professors at the Zuckerman Institute.”
Named a STAT Wunderkind, Dr. Jones Marlin is the recipient of the Society for Neuroscience's Donald B. Lindsley Prize, a Simons Fellowship, a NIMH Training Award, the Outstanding Dissertation Prize from NYU and NYU’s Special McCracken Award in Science. In addition to her efforts to communicate science to the public, she serves on the Allen Institute’s Next Generation Leaders Council, is the chair for the Society for Neuroscience’s Trainee Advisory Committee, and is a stalwart advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion in science.
About the Irving Cell Research Program at the Zuckerman Institute: Transforming the study and treatment of cancer at Columbia
The Herbert and Florence Irving Cell Research Program was endowed through an extraordinary bequest to support investigation into the fascinating topic of cell death and survival using a comparative approach that has strong implications for both cancer and neurodegeneration. While many human cells are constantly being generated and live just a few days, such as epithelial cells in the gut, others, especially neurons, can survive a lifetime: up to a century in certain instances. Current knowledge of the mechanisms by which cell types perish at different rates is limited and yet absolutely essential for understanding, treating and eventually curing diseases that dramatically increase in prevalence with age.
Central to the Irving Program’s pursuit of an answer to this basic yet perplexing biological question are the three Herbert and Florence Irving Professorships, which were awarded to Dr. Elizabeth Hillman, Dr. Stavros Lomvardas and Dr. Gary Struhl. Each scientist is engaged in a highly collaborative research program with strong implications for cancer biology, in particular for tumors of the brain and the nervous system.
Funds dedicated to the Irving Program are also supporting the recruitment of two junior professors, research equipment, supplies, post-docs, and a biennial symposium with visiting speakers. In addition, the Irving bequest has funded a cryo-electron microscope (CryoEM), which can image proteins within cells at molecular resolution and is essential to advances being made in understanding cancer, neurodegeneration, and even novel viruses, such as COVID-19.
The Irving Legacy
Both born and raised in Brooklyn, Herbert and Florence Irving played a leading role in philanthropy and service in their generous support for Columbia University Medical Center. Herbert Irving was a co-founder and former vice chairman of Sysco Corporation, the nation’s largest food distributor. Florence Irving served in leadership positions on the boards of several nonprofit institutions, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she was a trustee. Herbert Irving passed away on October 3, 2016, and Florence Irving passed away on July 25, 2018.
Across Columbia, the Irvings’ generosity has transformed the study and treatment of cancer. The Irvings’ donations to Columbia University and NewYork-Presbyterian total nearly $1 billion. They left a bequest of $700 million, including $600 million in new funds in addition to previously announced pledges, to these two institutions to advance research and clinical programs for the treatment of cancer.
In September 2016, Columbia University named the Medical Center in honor of the Irvings. The Herbert and Florence Irving Medical Center is home to the Herbert Irving Pavilion, the Irving Cancer Research Center, the Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research, the Irving Radiation Oncology Center, the Irving Bone Marrow Transplant Unit, and the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Irving Pediatric Oncology Program, and the Irving Comprehensive Skin Cancer Center, as well as a long list of named professorships, faculty chairs, and clinical and research facilities. The Irving Medical Center is also home to the Herbert and Florence Irving Basic Science Scholars in Pediatric Cancer. The Irvings’ focus on fighting cancer extends across the University to the Morningside and Manhattanville campuses as well, where the following programs reside: the Herbert and Florence Irving Institute for Cancer Dynamics, the Herbert and Florence Irving Cancer Data Fellows, the Herbert and Florence Irving Cancer Research Data Scientists, and the Herbert and Florence Irving Cell Research Program.