Joseph Jerry tabbed to lead PVLSI

By Ashley Berger

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University of Massachusetts Professor Joseph Jerry was appointed Scientific Director of the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute (PVSLI) earlier this fall. He succeeds Professor Lawrence Schwartz, who was recently appointed the Isenberg Professor of Integrative Science.

The University and Baystate Medical Center in Springfield joined forces in 2002 to create the PVLSI, a research environment, which, its leaders say, fosters collaboration between a broad range of scientists in various disciplines, including biologists, engineers, computer scientists and physicians.

The focus of the facility, which is located in Springfield, is to improve human health and economic development, while also examining the quality of care and life of the patient. Specifically, the Institute specializes in research dealing with breast cancer, diabetes, metabolic disorders and apoptosis.

Professor Jerry has been at UMass since 1993, and has taught courses both at the undergraduate and graduate levels in the genetics and molecular medicine. Jerry received his master’s degree from Purdue University in Indiana, his Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University, and received postdoctoral training at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

Professor Jerry has been involved with the PVSLI since its inception.

“I’m impressed with what has been built with our colleagues, and the exciting possibilities now open to investigators at both UMass and Baystate Medical Center,” Jerry said. “We have so many people with creative ideas in science at both institutions that provide opportunities to change the way we treat disease and deliver healthcare.”

“Everyone working at the Institute is committed to applying their skills to develop new approaches for diagnosis and treatment of disease with an emphasis on prevention,” he continued.

Jerry noted what he sees as one of the facility’s strengths, its ability to promote interdisciplinary collaboration.

“Some of the hurdles we face as scientists are walking outside our particular disciplines, but translational research often requires that,” he said. “Therefore, the PVSLI has developed integrative teams of scientists with complementary skills needed to shepherd projects from the laboratory to application in the clinic.”

Jerry talked at length about the different endeavors the PVSLI is presently undertaking. One of its researchers’ focus is on scientific trends dealing with diabetes. While insulin treats the diseases’ immediate symptoms, patients’ daily control of blood glucose remains imperfect. This results in an accumulation of damage to capillaries and blood vessels that result in the many complications faced by diabetics.

“The next step in research is to prevent the damage to blood vessels so that people live well,” he said.
Professor Jerry’s personal area of expertise is in breast cancer research, specifically looking at tumor suppressor genes and susceptibility to the disease. While the mortality rate is decreasing, the incidence has not diminished.

“Clearly, the promise of prevention is the goal we must strive for. Presently, we’re looking at ways to improve early diagnosis, which will save healthcare dollars and lives. Personalized approaches to therapies are also major themes of research at the PVLSI,” explained Jerry.

Jerry emphasized that hormone levels during full-term pregnancies cut the risk of breast cancer in half. Currently, Jerry and the staff at the PVSLI are looking at ways to find the molecular pathways which lead to susceptibility and design targeted drugs to help prevent breast cancer. In their current research, the scientists at the PVSLI have discovered associations between certain proteins and the aggressiveness of breast cancer.

Collaboration between polymer chemists and PVLSI scientists is helping to conceive of different ways to deliver drugs to patients.

“Most drugs have side effects, but if you deliver the drug exactly where it needs to go in the body, then those side effects will be minimized. Ultimately, this will improve the effectiveness of the treatments and patient care, hopefully, within our lifetime,” he said.

In Jerry’s 17 years as a professor, he said teaching genetics courses have been especially enjoyable.

“Everybody thinks that they’ll hate it, but there is enough about the subject in the news to engage nearly everyone. It’s fun to see students get excited when they thought they wouldn’t be,” he said.

In addition to teaching, Jerry has also worked with chemists to attempt to use magnetic fields to kill cancer cells, mapped modifiers of breast cancer in mice, as well as publishing numerous articles for various science magazines.

When asked what advice he would give to young scientists, he had simple but meaningful advice.

“Don’t be afraid to think grandly; some of you will be responsible for the next breakthroughs.”

Ashley Berger can be reached at [email protected]