Stem cell specialist Morrison presents Feb. 20 President’s Lecture

By Connie Piloto

An award-winning high school science project led Dr. Sean Morrison into the agricultural biotech business. With his scientific findings, he was able to secure funding from investors and open his own company while he was still a college undergraduate. When the stock market plummeted in the early 1990s, he closed up shop and focused on graduate school. 

Dr. Sean Morrison, Director of the Children’s Medical Center Research Institute at UT Southwestern (CRI)
Dr. Sean Morrison, Director of the Children’s Medical Center Research Institute at UT Southwestern (CRI).

“I went to graduate school because I failed in biotech!” Dr. Morrison said. “After that experience, I wanted to do medical research, and it became clear that stem cell research was an exciting area that was going to be really big.”

Today, Dr. Morrison is an internationally recognized leader in adult stem cell research. He is Director of the Children’s Medical Center Research Institute at UT Southwestern (CRI), a joint venture to build upon the comprehensive clinical expertise of Children’s and the internationally recognized scientific excellence of UT Southwestern.

Dr. Morrison and his team of CRI scientists focus on research at the point where stem cell biology intersects with regenerative medicine and cancer biology. By unraveling the mechanisms that regulate stem cell function, they aim to identify new treatments that enhance tissue regeneration or that defeat cancer.

He will present an overview of this work at the next installment of the President’s Lecture Series on Feb.20. His talk, “Understanding Cancer Through the Lens of Stem Cell Biology,” begins at
4 p.m. in the Tom and Lula Gooch Auditorium. A reception will follow the presentation.

Researchers in the Morrison laboratory study the molecular mechanisms that maintain stem cells in tissues and the ways in which these mechanisms are hijacked by cancer cells to enable tumor formation. By applying the principles of stem cell biology to understand cancer growth and progression, they have been able to gain important insights into the cells that are responsible for tumor growth, as well as the molecular mechanisms they use to drive growth and metastasis.

Dr. Morrison and his research team particularly focus on leukemia and melanoma.

Shortly after the CRI’s founding in 2011, its researchers made their first high-impact discovery when they identified the environment in which blood-forming stem cells survive and thrive within the bone marrow.

“Although scientists had searched for decades to identify the stem cell home, this was the first study to reveal the cells that are functionally responsible for the maintenance of blood-forming stem cells in the body,” Dr. Morrison said. “The breakthrough is an important step toward increasing the safety and effectiveness of bone marrow transplants. We are now studying whether the stem cell home plays some role in the growth and progression of leukemias.”

CRI investigators integrate teams of physicians and scientists with complementary strengths and interests to foster an environment that leads to collaborative research.

“Often, science and medicine are done by different people in different silos, impeding the transfer of new knowledge from one silo to the other,” Dr. Morrison said. “As a new institute, we have an opportunity to do things differently and accelerate the pace of discovery by truly integrating science and medicine.”

An example was the establishment in September of the Genetic and Metabolic Disease Program. Led by Dr. Ralph DeBerardinis, Associate Professor of Pediatrics in the CRI and in the Eugene McDermott Center for Human Growth and Development, the program is the first of three that will employ interdisciplinary groups of scientists and physicians to understand better the biological basis of childhood genetic diseases and improve therapy. A particular focus is on diseases that impact metabolism, which account for the highest subset of genetic disorders that affect children.

“The problem is that we don’t know the cause of most inborn errors in metabolism, leaving us unable to diagnose precisely or treat the problems that afflict many of these children,” Dr. Morrison said. “Our program aims to rectify this problem by sequencing the genetic material of children who present at Children’s Medical Center with an unknown inherited metabolic error, in an effort to identify the genetic basis of their condition.”

Dr. Morrison is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and Professor of Pediatrics as well as head of the Hamon Laboratory for Stem Cell and Cancer Biology. He completed a Bachelor of Science in biology and chemistry at Dalhousie University in his native Halifax, Nova Scotia, and it was there that he was given lab space so he could continue his high school science project on the study of mycorrhizal fungi in an attempt to develop a biological fertilizer. He received his doctorate in immunology from Stanford University and finished his postgraduate training in neurobiology at the California Institute of Technology in 1999 and joined the University of Michigan Medical School faculty the same year. Before being recruited in 2011 to lead the CRI, Dr. Morrison led the Center for Stem Cell Biology at the University of Michigan and was the Henry Sewall Professor in Medicine at the Life Sciences Institute there.

Among his many honors, Dr. Morrison was a Searle Scholar and has received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the International Society for Hematology and Stem Cells McCulloch and Till Award, the American Association of Anatomists Harland Mossman Award, and a MERIT Award from the National Institute on Aging.


Dr. Morrison holds the Mary McDermott Cook Chair in Pediatric Genetics.