This fall, three members of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine joined Chemistry of Life Processes Institute to strengthen opportunities for collaboration across disciplines and translation of their groundbreaking work. The Institute’s new members are Xiao-Nan Li, MD, PhD, Professor of Pediatrics (Hematology, Oncology, and Stem Cell Transplantation); Hande Özdinler, PhD, Associate Professor of Neurology; and Gabriel Rocklin, PhD, Assistant Professor of Pharmacology.

“It’s very exciting to have three members of the Feinberg faculty join the Institute,” says Thomas O’Halloran, Founding Director of the Institute. “Hande is doing brilliant work on understanding the molecular basis of neurodegenerative diseases like ALS and has formed some extraordinary collaborations with [CLP member] Rick Silverman.  Xiao-Nan brings a wealth of expertise in animal models of disease and development of new treatments. As a freshly minted faculty member, Gabe brings a whole repertoire of protein design tools that are based on molecular modeling and evolutionary principles.”

As Director of Pediatric Xenograft Modeling at the Manne Research Institute at Lurie Children’s Hospital, Xiao-Nan Li, an acclaimed cancer biologist, focuses on finding improved therapies for children with cancer. An expert in developing novel patient-derived orthotopic xenograft mouse models to understand tumor biology and identify new diagnostic and/or therapeutic targets, Li pioneered the development of clinically relevant and molecularly accurate animal models of pediatric brain tumors, and has developed 130 models of different brain tumor subtypes. Li will leverage his vast experience as the new Faculty Director of CLP’s Developmental Therapeutics Core where he will apply his expertise conducting comprehensive preclinical drug testing to establish rational for the initiation of clinical trials for promising research programs.

Li earned his PhD and MD, and completed his residency and fellowship at Suzhou Medical College/Soochow University in China. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship studying gene expression in cancer at Baylor College of Medicine.

“CLP offers me the best opportunity to collaborate with other outstanding investigators on multiple research topics of cancer research,” says Li. “It also enables me to contribute to Northwestern’s research community on preclinical development of new drugs and novel devices, and to facilitate the transition of novel discoveries to clinical applications.”

Hande Özdinler, PhD, is an Associate Professor at the Department of Neurology, Northwestern University, Feinberg School of Medicine.  She is also a member at the Mesulam Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center, the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center, and the Les Turner ALS Center.

Özdinler received a Master’s degree in a program spanning chemical engineering and molecular biology and genetics; focusing on biotechnology. She received a PhD in Cell Biology, Anatomy and Neuroscience from Louisiana State University (LSU) Health Sciences Center.  She became a postdoctoral fellow at Neurosurgery Department of Massachusetts General Hospital-Harvard Medical School, prior to joining Northwestern as the founding director of the second Les Turner ALS Laboratory. Özdinler’s research is focused on understanding the cellular and molecular basis of selective vulnerability observed in neurodegenerative diseases.  The Özdinler lab primarily focuses on understanding the biology of upper motor neurons as well as the mechanisms that are responsible for their progressive degeneration, which is a hallmark in diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, hereditary spastic paraplegia, and primary lateral sclerosis.  Her research program extends from biomarker discovery to development of drug verification platforms, and generation of mouse models of diseases to identification of novel targets for gene delivery approaches. Her work has been supported by National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Aging, and foundations, such as Les Turner ALS Foundation, ALS Association, and A Long Swim.

“I am thrilled to be a part of CLP’s collaborative environment where teams of top scientists solve complex problems. I believe this is just the beginning of great things to come,” says Özdinler.

Gabriel Rocklin, PhD received a BA in Biology-Chemistry and History from Claremont McKenna College and completed his PhD research at the University of California, San Francisco, supervised by Brian Shoichet and Ken Dill. With support from NSF and Department of Defense fellowships, he developed methods to improve the accuracy of molecular dynamics-based free energy calculations of protein-ligand binding. He completed his postdoctoral research with David Baker at the University of Washington as a Merck Fellow of the Life Sciences Research Foundation. There, he pioneered the use of large-scale protein design to understand protein biophysics. This work makes it possible to computationally design and experimentally characterize thousands of diverse proteins in parallel. In 2019, he started his independent group in Northwestern University’s Department of Pharmacology.

Rocklin is also a core member of Northwestern’s Center for Synthetic Biology. His group develops new high-throughput methods to improve computational protein design, understand protein biophysics, and design protein therapeutics.

“I’m very much at home in the interdisciplinary environment of CLP and am excited to make connections with the other CLP faculty,” says Rocklin. “I also hope that CLP can help move some of our basic science toward translation.”

by Lisa La Vallee