Moving genomics to clinic, one experiment at a time

Terry Magnuson’s first step toward research to help others was far from beginner’s luck.

When Magnuson was an undergraduate science major, he wrote his first research proposal – which was promptly accepted. Because of that winning entry, the National Science Foundation footed the bill for him to spend the summer in Hawaii with his fellow classmates studying pollution. Cynics might say it was just a case of beginner’s luck, but they wouldn’t know that Magnuson has secured scads of research funding — over 28 million dollars to UNC-Chapel Hill alone – in the years since.

Magnuson, whose list of titles is as impressive as his accumulation of funding, says that it was that first experience that hooked him on research. Magnuson has served as the Sarah Graham Kenan professor and chair of the department of genetics, the director of the program in cancer genetics of the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and, until recently, the director of the Carolina Center for Genome Sciences.

Magnuson’s most recent role is as vice dean for research, in which he will help lead the NC Translational and Clinical Sciences (NC TraCS) Institute at UNC as PI extender for basic research. NC TraCS is one of 60 Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSAs) in a nationwide consortium funded by NIH to accelerate the pace and improve efficiencies in biomedical research, as well as train the next generation of researchers.

Of Mice and Men

Long before he became a fixture in the UNC School of Medicine, Magnuson had decided to focus on research that was medically oriented. He applied and was accepted to graduate work at one of the top two cancer centers in the country, Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York City. To Magnuson, the move was a much-appreciated culture shock.

“It was going from a small place out in the middle of nowhere to the biggest city in the country,” he said. “Being at Sloan Kettering was a pretty amazing transformation because walk downing 68th street and seeing all these tall research buildings, I was just surrounded by this great environment for biomedical research. That is where I started learning how mouse models can be used to study cancer and how genetics is a very important component of developing mouse models.”

So when it was time to do his postdoctoral fellowship, Magnuson chose to go to the University of California at San Francisco and work for Charles Epstein, who was known for his discoveries in mouse genetics. Working with Epstein and a researcher one floor down, Gail Martin, Magnuson made the first mutant embryonic stem cell line. The exciting advance set the stage for him and other researchers to use genetics as a tool for studying the development of disease in animal models. And he has spent the rest of his career doing just that.

Published October 7, 2011.