Cracking the Codes

A research dream team tackles neuroscience’s toughest challenges

Anna Powell Teeter

In many regards, the brain is still a black box. Despite its relative proximity, aspects of the brain’s function remain as mysterious as the Mariana Trench and every bit as veiled as the deepest regions of space.

Nevertheless, a tight-knit team of scientists, assembled within a series of labs inside Indiana University’s Multidisciplinary Science Building II, is making real progress with neuroscience issues that are both complex and socially relevant. Thanks to the establishment of the Linda and Jack Gill Center for Biomolecular Science, five Gill chairs and one Gill scholar — along with their respective research associates — have driven significant advances in treatments for chronic pain, dementia, diabetes, opioid addiction, and more.

“Put six great scientists in one field — all of whom are complementary to each other — together in one building and the productivity isn’t five-X. It’s about 10-X. That’s what we’ve reached,” says founder Jack Gill.

In 2017 alone, Gill Center researchers published more than 50 papers and netted $2.5 million in direct grant funding that will help further their research and train students. But besides advancing neuroscience research through study, publication, and collaboration with the neuroscience community at-large, the center provides the next generation of scientists with “hands-on” research opportunities. And, by encouraging partnerships between IU, other research institutions, and bioscience companies, the Gill Center aims to position IU as a national center of excellence for neuroscience research.

Synergy over silos

To make neuroscience breakthroughs, leveraging talent from various backgrounds just makes sense, according to College of Arts and Sciences Executive Dean Larry Singell.

“If you’re going to look at the biomolecular level, there are chemical processes going on,” Singell says. “There are biological processes going on. There are behavioral issues that manifest. There are a whole series of things that happen. What the Gill Center recognized was that, to do really cutting-edge science, you need a multidisciplinary approach. That has become more common practice now, but at the time, this was quite forward-looking.”

Case in point, Gill Center Director and Chair Hui-Chen Lu says, “Here, everyone has their own projects, but we also try to find ways to work together to make a bigger impact.”

And that means sharing everything from chemical reagents and equipment to the more abstract.

“We have meetings, journal calls, and activities to promote each other’s strengths and work out how to collaborate on projects,” Lu says. “We pick each other’s brains to find the best solution.”

Jack Gill speaks with Hui-Chen Lu, the Gill Center's director.

Lu studies the brain’s natural neuroprotective mechanisms and the development of neural circuitry in young brains. Her research increases our understanding of contributors to neurological disorders including autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s Disease.

“I have expanded my territory of research since I arrived here,” she says. “For example, we ventured into microRNAs to examine how changes in these molecules may affect brain function. This is a relatively new topic to me and many neuroscientists. There is great excitement because of the potential of using microRNAs as biomarkers and as a potential therapeutics.”

The Gill philosophy

Lessons Jack Gill learned early in life greatly influenced the Gill Center’s operation. A native of Lufkin, Texas, Gill was one of six children born to parents with a sixth-grade-level education. Interested in how things worked, he had his own “laboratory” as a teen, where he tinkered with fans and other machines.

“That was the beginning of my engineering interest,” he recalls.

Tough talk from a tenth-grade math teacher further fueled his fire.

“She said, ‘You’ll never be the athlete your older brother is … [and] your sister is a lot smarter than you are. Get over it. When you get out in the real world, you’re not going to be competing with your siblings.’ That was a wake-up call and a shock.”

Noting his aptitude for them, his teacher steered him to math and science.

“I went from good-not-great student, and I graduated fifth out of 147. I can still tell you every course I took with the four in front of me, how much it pissed me off that I couldn’t beat them, and how hard I worked to try to be the best,” Gill says.

That newfound work ethic stuck. Gill went on to earn chemistry and engineering degrees from Lamar University and a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from IU. His academic background proved invaluable as complex, new chemistry instruments — like gas chromatography and nuclear magnetic resonance spectrophotometry — were introduced. Initially, Gill joined Monsanto as an instrumentation scientist, but, he admits, “Entrepreneurship snuck up on me.”

Moving from company to company, he began designing scientific instruments. Making his way to Silicon Valley, he founded and sold successful instrumentation companies, and he co-founded a lucrative venture capital firm, Vanguard Ventures. But, by the late 1990s, Gill was ready for a new challenge.

He and his wife, Linda, decided it was time to give back.

“We started with nothing, and, if you’re lucky, as we were, you never forget your roots,” Gill says.

By 1999, they established the Gill Center for Biomolecular Measurement within IU’s Department of Chemistry. Although the center’s original focus was analytical chemistry, by 2003 that shifted to cellular and molecular neuroscience under the College of Arts and Sciences.

“We now live longer — because we made great strides in treating cancer and heart disease — only to get Alzheimer’s and ALS and these ugly neuroscience diseases? That’s how we came to re-focus the Gill Center,” Gill explains.

Linda and Jack Gill sit together in their namesake center.

Exploration and entrepreneurism

From opioid addiction to legalized medical marijuana, some neuroscience research areas have become increasingly relevant as social issues. For instance, Gill Chair Ken Mackie has spent much of his career studying cannabinoids — chemical compounds derived from cannabis — including how they interact with cellular processes. Some cannabinoids have been shown to have beneficial medical effects, as well as the ability to counteract some of the negative effects associated with cannabis’s primary psychoactive compound, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Mackie’s work with cannabinoids has influenced other Gill Center researchers.

“We’re also interested in how cannabis and THC affect the developing brain,” he says. “That’s an area of overlap between our lab and Hui-Chen Lu’s lab, which does a lot of neurodevelopmental work.”

Gill Chair Andrea Hohmann’s lab has generated several influential studies on how cannabinoids can be used to treat pain and actively collaborates with the Mackie Lab. Still other research synergies also exist.

“[Gill Chair] Dan Tracey is interested in the basic mechanisms of sensation which has relevance to pain, since pain is often sensation gone wrong,” Mackie says. “He’s using the fruit fly, which is a great system for rapidly identifying genes that are important for pain and different types of sensation. So, his work and interests overlap with Andrea’s and mine.”

Research collaboration isn’t the only way in which Gill Center faculty interact, however. For one thing, in addition to his vast expertise on metabolic disease, Gill Chair Richard DiMarchi boasts an impressive background in the entrepreneurial side of science, as well. To date, he’s successfully formed and sold three companies, and this background provides an invaluable opportunity for collaboration of a different sort.

“He offers great connections to industry and advice for turning ideas into intellectual property and into productive companies,” Mackie says.

Transforming abstract lab findings into tangible therapeutics is a kind of Holy Grail for many research scientists. But that takes time, planning, and, yes, collaboration. Attracting hundreds of leading neuroscientists from around the world, IU’s annual Gill Symposium has been particularly mission-critical. To further broaden the center’s reach? Lu hopes to work with other IU faculty, submit collaborative grants, and host international scientists more often.

“We want to be able to make an impact beyond Bloomington and Indiana,” she says.

Susan M. Brackney

Susan M. Brackney holds a B.A. in English from Indiana University. A professional writer since 1995, she has written for Boy Scouts, stoners, interventional radiologists, would-be beekeepers, depressives, the one percent, and many other walks of life. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Discover, Organic Gardening, Hobby Farms, and Indianapolis Monthly Magazine, among others. Brackney is also a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and has published four nonfiction books, including Plan Bee: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Hardest-Working Creatures on the Planet. Reach her at writer@susanbrackney.com.