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Thomas Jessell


Thomas Jessell (Photo credit: Knut Falch)

Thomas Jessell (1951-2019) received his PhD in neuropharmacology at Cambridge University, UK and went on to become a post-doctoral fellow in Gerald Fischbach’s laboratory at Harvard Medical School in the U.S., and then in 1981 an Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurology, also at Harvard. In 1985, he moved to Columbia University in New York.

Throughout his career, Jessell has focused on the early wiring of the vertebrate central nervous system. His research has identified the strategies and molecules involved in assembling neural circuits, and has laid the groundwork for new ways of reconstructing these circuits when they have been damaged through trauma or neurodegenerative disease. His profound influence in his field is demonstrated by his steady production of research papers referenced by a large number of his peers. During the 1990s, he produced around two dozen papers that went on to be cited over 100 times during the following decade, and at least six that were cited over 300 times.

In 1992, he was a senior member of the international team that set out to find the mammalian equivalents of the hedgehog gene known to play an important role in pattern formation in the developing fruit fly. The result was the discovery of three new mammalian genes - known as sonic, Indian, and desert hedgehog - and the realization that the proteins they coded accounted for a significant proportion of all developmental interactions known to occur in the vertebrate embryo.

Along with colleagues, he founded Ontogeny Inc., a biotechnology company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts that aims to use developmental biology approaches to create new treatments for diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson’s. Jessell is a fellow of the UK’s Royal Society, a foreign associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a member of the Institute of Medicine, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.