BAR HARBOR, Maine — A Hong Kong native with nearly 25 years experience in biomedical and cancer research in the United States and Asia has been named the new president and chief executive officer of The Jackson Laboratory.
Edison Liu, 59, who studied cancer as a physician earlier in his career, has been the founding executive director of the Genome Institute of Singapore since 2001. Before that, he was the scientific director of the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Clinical Sciences in Bethesda, Md., according to a statement released Friday by Jackson Lab.
As president and CEO, Liu will fill positions most recently held by Rick Woychik, who stepped down in January after eight years on the job to take another post in North Carolina. Liu is expected to begin his new duties with Jackson Lab in early January 2012.
At Jackson Lab, Liu will lead an institution that specializes in using mice to research human diseases and medical conditions. It breeds millions of specialized laboratory mice each year that are used in biomedical studies all over the world. With more than 1,200 employees at its Bar Harbor campus, Jackson Lab is one of the largest employers in eastern Maine and is the largest in Hancock County.
In a phone interview Friday, Liu said he thinks his new job is “going to be a lot of fun.”
Liu said he is not that familiar with mouse genetics but he sees great potential for advances in disease research by using genomics to improve the mouse models the global research community can use to study human diseases and medical conditions.
With recent advances in genomics, researchers can map out the entire genetic sequence of a species and learn how those genes interact with one another. With genomics, the ability to breed lab mice to a specific genetic profile that researchers want to experiment with is greatly improved, he said, which in turn will benefit biomedical research.
“It moves things from guessing to precision,” Liu said.
The new CEO said that, aside from using genomics to improve its mouse models, Jackson Lab is in a position to expand its services overseas in Asia and Europe. His experience in Singapore over the past decade will be an asset to the lab, which employs approximately 100 people at its West Coast campus in Sacramento, Calif., in it efforts to sell more mice to researchers on the far side of the Pacific Ocean, he said.
“[Jackson Lab officials] understand that another market is arriving, and that’s in Asia,” Liu said. “They wanted someone who is familiar with Asia. We need to look at markets where there is a need.”
Liu said there are few research institutions as accomplished as Jackson Lab in using mice to study human health, and that the lab has several “very well known” researchers. He said he also likes that the lab is relatively close to other important biomedical research institutions on the East Coast.
Liu said he was impressed with the natural beauty of Maine and of Mount Desert Island when he visited the lab this past winter. He said he also was impressed by the down-to-earth atmosphere of the area and of the lab, and by the lab’s strong sense of community and mission.
“That’s something I find very valuable,” Liu said. “Those issues really sold me [on Jackson Lab].”
In the lab’s prepared statement, Liu said he is “excited” about his new job.
“The vision of its leadership and the talent of the scientists and staff were compelling attractors,” he said. “Despite the economic challenges, these are remarkable times scientifically. I am looking forward to learning from my new colleagues and sharing with them my perspective in human biology and in global science.”
Members of the lab’s board of trustees said in the statement that Liu will help the lab translate its research into clinical medicine.
“The Jackson Laboratory is a dynamic pivot point at the intersection of mammalian and human genetics,” the new board chairman, Leo Holt, said in the release. “His talents run broad and deep, and his leadership is a great addition to the team that leads the search for tomorrow’s cures.”
Liu attended Stanford University as an undergraduate and as a medical student and also has studied or held positions at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., at the University of California in San Francisco, and at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
At the National Cancer Institute, he oversaw 1,200 employees, including 100 principal investigators, that were organized into 16 research units. In 2001, he was recruited to lead the the new Genome Institute of Singapore, which he built from a staff of three into a major research organization with 27 laboratory groups and a staff of 270.
Liu said he is married and with his wife has two grown sons, one in college and another in Beijing, and a daughter in high school. He said his wife and daughter will remain in Singapore for the coming year but hope to join him in Maine soon thereafter.
According to lab officials, in his spare time Liu also plays and writes composition for jazz piano and writes about science and society for newspapers and magazines.
Until Liu arrives after the end of the calendar year, the lab will continue to run on an interim basis by Charles Hewett, the lab’s chief operating officer, and Robert Braun, Jackson Lab’s associate director and chair of research, according to lab officials.