This message was sent to the Rockefeller community from the Office of the President on March 12, 2021 at 4:56 p.m.
Subject: Update from the President
The temperature this week has climbed well into the 60s, and the snow has melted. The crocuses are out along the driveway and the daffodils are on their way. This weekend we will set our clocks forward to mark the beginning of daylight savings time. Spring is coming!
Next week will mark one year since we closed the University in response to the pandemic, with initial access limited to essential personnel. I don’t believe any of us foresaw how the last year would unfold. Despite the enormous challenges, I am immensely grateful for and proud of how our community has pulled together to keep one another safe, to make fundamental contributions to fighting the pandemic, and to advance our great non-COVID science.
Regarding the clinical impact of COVID on campus, as of Thursday evening, we are aware of a total of 113 employees who have been diagnosed with SARS-CoV-2 infection since the start of the pandemic. Most have been diagnosed as part of our routine on-campus testing, with the remainder diagnosed after becoming symptomatic at home and getting tested off-campus. All have recovered, and we are aware of only two individuals who required hospital stays, both of which were brief. Half of the people diagnosed through routine testing were asymptomatic, and getting these individuals into isolation has been instrumental in preventing chains of transmission from spreading through the campus. To date we are aware of only two potential occurrences of infection occurring on campus, a remarkable safety record.
The safety of our community to date has been attributable to everyone’s collective effort to adhere to established guidelines and to the incredible dedication of many members of our community. In the first days, Ann Campbell and the Occupational Health Services team, along with HOL Tom Sakmar, were instrumental in evaluating symptomatic people, collecting samples for testing, performing contact tracing to identify significant contacts to prevent transmission of virus, and following up with those who had been infected, distributing thermometers and pulse oximeters to monitor clinical status. Amy Wilkerson, Tim O’Connor, Alex Kogan, and many others defined protocols to be followed to keep essential operations on campus safe, which evolved, with input from Mike Rout and HOLs, into protocols that would allow safe reopening of laboratories on campus. Bob Darnell and his lab made key contributions with the development of his robust saliva-based test, which enabled testing of very young children and allowed Ginny Huffman to get city approval to reopen the CFC, which was critical to permitting many parents with young children to return to work. As the labs have reopened, the ability to test everyone coming to campus each week via the Darnell test has proved vital in identifying those infected with the virus and preventing spread on campus. A program run by Lab Safety has provided N95 respirators to employees commuting by public transit, along with sterilization boxes to enable their safe reuse. And given chaotic K-8 in-person and distance learning schedules, Ginny Huffman collaborated with the YMCA to pioneer the establishment of the Rockefeller Learning Center to provide a safe environment for pods of students during the school day, which also enabled parents to return to work.
The game changer of the last several months has been the approval of three vaccines for use. Each is safe and highly effective in preventing serious disease and death. I urge everyone to get any of these as soon as possible. As of Tuesday, we are aware of 493 employees who have been vaccinated, which is a great start. Most of these occurred via collaboration with our neighbors NYPH and Weill Cornell. I note that 86% of those eligible for vaccination there have taken the vaccine. As expected from the clinical trials, we have heard of no serious adverse effects of the vaccine on anyone in our community.
Looking forward, the state has extended eligibility for vaccination to everyone over age 60, as well as all adults with a qualifying underlying condition, and employees in a growing number of industries. Importantly, all in-person employees of non-profit public-facing institutions like Rockefeller University are currently eligible for vaccination. I urge everyone to keep close watch for appointments to become available on vaccination websites and to register as soon as possible. OHS is providing excellent information on where and how to get vaccinated. Read their helpful vaccine FAQ or contact RUvaccinated@rockefeller.edu. Also, please let OHS know if you have been vaccinated by emailing your proof of vaccination to the same address, RUVaccinated@rockefeller.edu.
I am hopeful that we will have virtually all adults vaccinated by the end of the summer, and that we will begin returning toward normal in the fall. Nonetheless, NYC and the surrounding counties continue to have the highest concentration of new cases in the country, with NYC having 45 new cases per 100,000 population per day, vastly higher than we experienced last summer. The push by some states to reopen all commercial venues without restrictions or even requirements for wearing masks reflects a grossly irresponsible politicization of this public health crisis. It remains imperative that we all remain vigilant in protecting ourselves and one another from infection. The threat of new strains that could make current vaccines significantly less effective remains a considerable concern. The best way to prevent their emergence is to reduce viral infections to very low levels so the chance of a more virulent virus emerging remains small. For these reasons, I again urge everyone to redouble their efforts to prevent infection, and to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
Please also note that despite the growing evidence that vaccination is successful at reducing the spread of COVID and the severity of disease, University policies regarding travel, social distance, occupancy, testing, and mask-wearing remain unchanged regardless of whether you have been vaccinated. Although these policies will likely continue to evolve in the coming weeks and months—our Research Restart Committee monitors guidance from the CDC and the state and city health departments and meets regularly to review and discuss operations on campus—until otherwise directed all Rockefeller employees should continue to follow all protocols, including mandatory weekly testing and restrictions on meeting in groups. Our goal is to maintain the safety of our community, which we have worked hard to achieve.
Turning (at long last!) to other news, this Wednesday we had the second of three meetings this academic year of the Board of Trustees, again held virtually. Undoubtedly, the highlight of the meeting was an interview of three assistant professors—Priya Rajasethupathy, Jeremy Rock, and Amy Shyer—discussing their science and the routine and unique challenges to starting a lab in the midst of a pandemic. The Trustees are always thrilled to connect with the faculty, and they were immensely impressed by this group.
Also on Wednesday, the Committee on Scientific Affairs of the Board of Trustees met and approved the promotions of two faculty members: Daniel Mucida was promoted to professor, with tenure, and Paul Cohen was promoted to associate professor.
Since arriving at Rockefeller in 2010, Daniel Mucida has very successfully explored mechanisms regulating resistance and tolerance in the mammalian gut. Recognizing the intestine as an ideal environment in which to probe the immune system’s responses to both pathogenic and innocuous or protective microbes, as well as food-borne antigens, Daniel’s laboratory has set about characterizing the cellular and molecular pathways that balance resistance and tolerance. This work has been very productive, despite the extraordinary challenge of studying the in vivo interactions of the gut microbiome and adjacent epithelium, along with the abundant immune cells and neurons in the gut wall and their signaling beyond this organ. Daniel’s team has done an amazing job. They have defined immune cells that modulate local and systemic responses, and have identified pathways by which these cells effect distinct immune responses in the gut. They have also shown how lymphocytes are dynamically reprogrammed in the gut epithelium in an ongoing process to regulate tolerance and immunity. Most recently, Daniel has begun study of neuroimmune interactions in the gut, revealing how certain neuronal circuits are tuned to specific microbiota, how enteric neurons sense and respond to luminal perturbations, and how macrophages are dedicated to the protection of neurons in the gut.
Daniel’s insights have profound implications for understanding a wide range of GI pathologies, as well as chronic inflammatory diseases, food allergies, and colorectal cancer. Over the past decade he has emerged as a visionary leader in the growing field of mucosal immunology and has been a prolific mentor to trainees both in his lab and in the immunology courses he co-teaches at Rockefeller and in the Tri-Institutional M.D./Ph.D. program.
Paul Cohen joined Rockefeller in 2015, and in the past six years has built an impressive laboratory devoted to the study of molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying obesity, in particular the white, brown, and beige adipocytes that regulate the pathology of obesity-associated diseases. One of his key findings, that a transcription factor known as PRDM16 regulates the expression of fat-specific genes, suggests a key mechanism by which these cells influence metabolic health. Paul’s lab has shown that neural innervation of fat depots is enhanced by the presence of beige fat and suppressed when beige fat is depleted. Innervation was found to be an important regulator of immune cells within adipose tissue, thereby influencing metabolic health. Paul has also applied innovative methods for tagging and purifying proteins secreted by white, brown, and beige adipocytes, which together secrete some 1,000 proteins. His lab has assigned functions to several such secreted proteins, linking them to insulin sensitization, lipid storage, blood pressure, and vascular tone.
Paul has also done highly innovative translational research. His lab has performed a transcriptomic analysis of peritumoral adipose cells and breast cancer cells in a mouse model of obesity-accelerated breast cancer. He has discovered that the rate-limiting enzyme in creatine biosynthesis (Gatm) is upregulated in peritumoral adipocytes, while the creatine transporter (Slc6a8) is upregulated in cancer cells. He has shown that these expression changes are necessary for obesity-driven breast cancer progression in their mouse model. Lastly, Paul’s group has mined the electronic health records of 52,000 patients with PET scans to identify over 5,000 who have brown adipose tissue. He has compared their metabolic traits to those found in patients matched for age, gender, and BMI who did not have brown fat. The results revealed that carriers of brown fat have a significantly reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, and improved metabolic profiles. These findings are a terrific advance in our understanding of the metabolic impact of brown fat. Paul has established himself as an emerging leader in his field.
In addition to their great science, both Daniel and Paul are great contributors to our community, generous with their time and dedicated to improving the University. Please join me in extending congratulations on their well-deserved promotions, and in wishing them continued success in the next phases of their careers!
With best wishes,
Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D.
Carson Family Professor
Laboratory of Human Genetics and Genomics