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$10 million gift supports personalized medicine

Couch family gift names new building, supports genome engineering center

by Julia Evangelou StraitNovember 3, 2017

Tim Parker

Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has received a $10 million commitment from longtime benefactors George and Debra Couch to support research that advances personalized medicine. In recognition of their generosity, the recently built research building at 4515 McKinley Ave. has been named the Debra and George W. Couch III Biomedical Research Building. The couple was honored Oct. 6 during a formal dedication ceremony at the newly named building.

The gift establishes an endowed fund dedicated to personalized medicine initiatives aimed at changing the way disease is diagnosed and treated. Since personalized therapies often are rooted in a person’s genetic makeup, the new fund provides support for the university’s Genome Engineering and Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Center. The center is a valuable resource for School of Medicine researchers. With its expertise in the latest genome editing technologies, such as CRISPR, and reprogramming of stem cells, scientists across the university are able to create precise cellular models of disease.

“We are deeply grateful to Debra and George Couch for their extraordinary generosity and for their commitment to improving human health,” said Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “Their gift will support cutting-edge research by our talented faculty in pursuit of personalized medical solutions for patients. With this generous support, the Genome Engineering Center will be even better positioned as a resource for our investigators, who are working at the forefront of the biomedical sciences.”

George Couch, a long-serving member of the School of Medicine National Council, noted, “It has been a privilege to be associated with the national council and be exposed to renowned faculty members who are making such a difference in the health of people around the world.  As my wife, Debra, and I began to think about our own legacy, we knew we wanted to help advance their work.” Couch recently concluded an 11-year term on Washington University’s Board of Trustees.

The Genome Engineering Center was established by Jeffrey D. Milbrandt, MD, PhD, the James S. McDonnell Professor of Genetics and head of the McDonnell Department of Genetics. Milbrandt is a leading geneticist with a focus on advancing the tools and techniques of gene editing to develop new therapies for patients.

“We would like to express our deepest thanks to George and Debra Couch for their generous philanthropy,” said David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. “Our Washington University Genome Engineering Center is focused on developing and optimizing gene editing techniques that will enable pioneering work in precision medicine. The gift will serve as a catalyst for developing biological systems that model diseases in a highly personalized way and for facilitating the development of new diagnostics and therapeutics from biologically validated data — our best hope for discovering precise ways to alleviate human suffering.”

The gift will help advance the center’s innovative research and support services, particularly providing investigators with the ability to take advantage of a powerful DNA editing tool, known as CRISPR/Cas9 nuclease technology. The center also provides expertise in the manufacturing and handling of what are called induced pluripotent stem cells. These cells are created from skin cells that are reprogrammed into a stem cell state, which can then be guided into other cell types, such as neurons or cardiac muscle cells. When such a skin sample comes from a patient with a particular disease, the conversion process can be used to model the disease in the specific cell type affected by the disorder — a resource that is particularly valuable when the affected cell type is inaccessible, such as in the brain.

“The field of genome engineering has advanced extraordinarily rapidly,” Milbrandt said. “Over the past five years or so, the ability to edit precise locations in the genome has gone from basically a glint in the eye to an almost everyday utility in biomedical research. The idea behind our center is to provide these rapidly evolving and sophisticated technologies to many investigators, so that these techniques do not need to be implemented in each individual lab.”

The new gift will help the genome engineering center stay at the leading edge of a rapidly advancing field, allowing it to invest in research and development of new ways to bring genome engineering technology into new therapies that may help patients. Working closely with researchers in many labs, programs and initiatives across the campus, the Genome Engineering Center is a key component of the School of Medicine’s personalized medicine initiative.

In addition to the Department of Genetics and the Genome Engineering Center, the newly named Couch Biomedical Research Building is home to numerous innovative research initiatives and centers, including the Edison Family Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology, the Center for Cellular Imaging, the Center for Multiple Myeloma Nanotherapy, the Optical Radiology Lab, the Molecular Imaging Center and research space for the Center of Regenerative Medicine and the departments of medicine and radiology.

George Couch is founder, CEO and president of Couch Distributing Company in Watsonville, Calif., and his wife, Debra, owns the Debra C clothing boutique in Carmel, Calif. The Couches are active with many charitable organizations. George Couch has served as president of the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County and currently is a board member for the Panetta Institute for Public Policy and a member of the Montage Health Foundation Board to support the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. Debra Couch is a member and past president of SHARE Inc., a Los Angeles-based organization that raises funds for children with special needs. She also is a passionate advocate for animals.

At Washington University, the Couches’ generosity also extends to the Department of Psychiatry where they provide ongoing support for research. In 1986, the Couch family endowed the Gregory B. Couch Professorship in Psychiatry in memory of George’s brother.  The position is held by Deanna Barch, PhD, a renowned scientist who studies cognitive and language deficits in disorders such as schizophrenia. In 1990, George Couch received the Robert S. Brookings Award in recognition of his extraordinary dedication and generosity to Washington University.

Tim Parker
A recent ceremony marked the naming of the Couch Biomedical Research Building, which houses many research initiatives and centers, including the Genome Engineering and Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Center.

Washington University School of Medicine‘s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient-care institutions in the nation, currently ranked seventh in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

Julia covers medical news in genomics, cancer, cardiology, developmental biology, biochemistry & molecular biophysics, and gut microbiome research. In 2022, she won a gold award for excellence in the Robert G. Fenley Writing Awards competition. Given by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the award recognized her coverage of long COVID-19. Before joining Washington University in 2010, she was a freelance writer covering science and medicine. She has a research background with stints in labs focused on bioceramics, human motor control and tissue-engineered heart valves. She is a past Missouri Health Journalism Fellow and a current member of the National Association of Science Writers. She holds a bachelor's degree in engineering science from Iowa State University and a master's degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Minnesota.