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Cytometry at Carnegie Mellon University

A watershed event for cytometry was Carnegie Mellon University’s decision in 1982 to recruit D. Lansing Taylor to its faculty in Biological Sciences. Lans was already established as a leading cell biologist using quantitative fluorescence microscopy, and he anticipated the potential of fluorescence methods to revolutionize cell analysis. His vision of creating a center focused on this area was well received at Carnegie Mellon given its history of interdisciplinary research, and the Department of Biological Sciences agreed to recruit two new faculty members to join Lans in forming a Center for Fluorescence Research in Biomedical Sciences (CFR). The first was Alan Waggoner, an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Amherst College who had done groundbreaking work on the use of fluorescent dyes for measuring neuronal activity. The second was Robert F. Murphy, a postdoctoral fellow with Charles R. Cantor at Columbia University who had introduced the use of flow cytometry for studying endocytic membrane traffic and was active in computational analysis of flow cytometry data. They were joined by research biologist Frederick Lanni, a postdoctoral fellow with Ben Ware at Syracuse University who had done major work on using fluorescence photobleaching recovery to study actin dynamics, and for a brief period by Robert Birge, the Head of the Chemistry department at Carnegie Mellon. CFR investigators had a major impact in bringing flow cytometry and quantitative microscopy to bear on important cell biological problems.

The principal investigators of the Center for Fluorescence Research in Biomedical Sciences circa 1986. From left, Alan Waggoner, Robert F. Murphy, D. Lansing Taylor, Frederick Lanni and Robert Birge.

In 1991, CFR was renamed the Center for Light Microscope Imaging and Biotechnology (CLMIB), joining fluorescent probe technologies and computerized fluorescence microscopy to study temporal and spatial interactions of living cells. CLMIB was a National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center for 11 years with innovative research, technology transfer, and outreach and education programs. It pioneered automated, multicolor fluorescence imaging technologies combined with multi-modal light microscope imaging methods that have now been adopted by Zeiss, Nikon, Olympus and other major imaging microscope manufacturers. The Center is also famous for its development of the CyDye labeling technologies that are used worldwide in biomedical research and diagnostics in place of radioisotopes. In June 1996, CLMIB was honored with the Computerworld Smithsonian Award for Science and Innovation, one of the most prestigious awards for scientific innovation. CLMIB was the birthplace of the technologies that led to the formation, in 1991, of Biological Detection Systems, Inc. (BDS), the company that commercialized the CyDyes and the Multimode Light Microscope Workstation. BDS was acquired by Amersham in 1995. Lans left the university in 1996 to start Cellomics, Inc., the company that created high-content screening (HCS) for the drug discovery industry. Cellomics, Inc. is now a division of Thermo Fisher Scientific.

Upon the expiration of the Science and Technology Center program, CLMIB was reorganized as the Molecular Biosensor and Imaging Center (MBIC) in 2002. Under the leadership of Waggoner and Simon Watkins (University of Pittsburgh), MBIC was designated a Technology Center for Networks and Pathways (TCNP) in 2006. MBIC engages in multi-disciplinary research involving biologists, computer scientists, biophysicists, electrical engineers, synthetic chemists, chemical engineers and biomedical engineers.

Since the inception of the CFR, the center has trained more than 43 graduate students and 34 post docs. These students have gone on to academic and industrial positions with expertise in fluorescence-detection technologies, multivariate flow cytometry, automated microscopy, reagent chemistry and biological applications of these powerful tools. Dozens of undergraduates have worked at the center throughout the years on research published in prestigious scientific journals. Notable CFR/CLMIB/MBIC alumni include Mario Roederer (a graduate student with Bob Murphy who is currently Director of the Flow Cytometry Core Laboratory of the Vaccine Research Center in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases), Klaus Hahn (a postdoctoral fellow with Lans Taylor who is currently the Ronald Thurman Distinguished Professor of Pharmacology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), Robert Mays (an undergraduate researcher with Bob Murphy who co-founded Athersys, Inc. and is currently its Director of Cell Biology).

As summarized under their separate entries, Lans Taylor, Alan Waggoner and Bob Murphy all went on to become internationally-recognized leaders in the field of cytometry.

Mario Roederer as a Ph.D. student in Bob Murphy’s group in the Center for Fluorescence Research in Biomedical Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University.

Bob’s first Ph.D. student was Mario Roederer, who worked on analysis of endocytic membrane traffic using flow cytometry and did extensive work on computational tools for acquiring and analyzing flow cytometry data. Mario did his postdoctoral work with Len Herzenberg at Stanford University, and is the world’s leading developer and practioner of polychromatic flow cytometry. He is currently the Director of the Flow Cytometry Facility at the Vaccine Research Laboratory at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.