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First of 10 expected BJC Investigators named

Helen McNeill’s work in developmental biology spans birth defects to cancer

by Julia Evangelou StraitAugust 4, 2017

Courtesy of Helen McNeill

Helen McNeill, PhD, has been named a BJC Investigator at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. She is the first researcher named as part of the new BJC Investigators Program, which aims to recruit scientists who bring innovative approaches to major biological quandaries and whose discoveries stand to inform new ways of understanding disease and developing treatments.

McNeill, the first of 10 expected BJC Investigators, is currently a professor in the Institute of Medical Science and the Department of Molecular Genetics, both at the University of Toronto. She is also a senior investigator at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, part of the Sinai Health System in Toronto. Her appointment as a BJC Investigator and a professor of developmental biology at Washington University begins Jan. 1, 2018.

“We are excited to begin the BJC Investigators Program with the appointment of Dr. Helen McNeill, an international leader in the field of developmental biology,” said David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. “We sought candidates who had already indelibly changed their fields, whose discoveries will result in new and fundamental shifts in scientific thinking and whose laboratories will become a nidus for additional innovative work across Washington University. Helen’s scientific accomplishments, her high standards of excellence and ability to collaborate across disciplines make her a perfect fit.”

The program is designed to specifically focus on basic science and is inspired by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s philosophy of investing in people with exceptional creative talent. It plans to bring 10 renowned researchers to Washington University School of Medicine and the life sciences ecosystem of St. Louis.

“We are very excited about the BJC Investigators Program at Washington University School of Medicine,” said Steven H. Lipstein, CEO of BJC HealthCare. “This program represents another joint effort between BJC and Washington University to help keep the school’s biomedical research at the forefront of discovery. Pioneering research here in St. Louis offers our best hope for finding solutions to society’s greatest medical challenges.”

McNeill’s work is focused on understanding the processes that govern how cells make contact and work together to form the broader architecture of whole tissues, both during development and adulthood. Her work — spanning studies of fruit flies, mice and human genetic data — has relevance for understanding birth defects, cancer and diseases of specific organs, such as the kidney and lungs.

McNeill earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the Ramapo College of New Jersey in 1985, followed by a doctorate in molecular and cellular physiology from Stanford University in 1993. She continued research at Stanford with a postdoctoral fellowship in fruit fly genetics. McNeill later led the Developmental Patterning Laboratory at the London Research Institute, a part of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund of the United Kingdom. She joined the faculty of the University of Toronto in 2005, where she has directed the Collaborative Program in Developmental Biology and earned numerous recognitions for her research, including the Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award and the Lloyd S.D. Fogler, QC, Award of Excellence for her research in cancer biology. Last year, she was awarded a Canada Tier 1 Research Chair, a position in which a scientist is recognized by peers as a world leader in his or her field.

“I am delighted that Dr. McNeill will be joining us at Washington University,” said Lilianna Solnica-Krezel, PhD, the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Professor of Developmental Biology and head of the Department of Developmental Biology. “She is a leader in the field and among the most original and creative investigators of pathways that are vital for the regulation of tissue structure and growth. The pathways she studies are among the least understood cellular pathways, with implications for a variety of birth defects and other diseases, including cancer.”

Specifically, McNeill studies molecules that govern how cells make contact and communicate with one another. Called giant cadherins for their large size, these molecules play important roles in controlling the size of organs and in orchestrating how cells assemble themselves into complex tissues at precise times and with specific patterns and orientations. Her work also has implicated these molecules in cellular metabolism and the function of mitochondria, molecular powerhouses that manufacture a cell’s fuel supply. According to McNeill’s research, disruption of the giant cadherins can interfere with early embryonic development leading to, for example, neural tube defects that cause spina bifida or defects in the development of the kidney and urinary tract. Her work has identified cadherins as a culprit in congenital kidney diseases such as cystic kidney disease.

“I am excited and honored to be joining Washington University School of Medicine as a BJC Investigator,” McNeill said. “Supporting research in the basic sciences is so important in making new discoveries and pushing the boundaries of what is known about human health and development. I thank the School of Medicine and BJC HealthCare for their commitment to supporting basic biomedical science in my own lab and in the labs of my fellow investigators.”

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, otolaryngology, 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.