Constance L. Cepko

Harvard University

Primary Section: 22, Cellular and Developmental Biology
Secondary Section: 24, Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
Membership Type:
Member (elected 2002)


Dr. Cepko is the Bullard Professor of Genetics and Neuroscience at Harvard Medical School and the Blavatnik Institute, and an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She began working in labs at the age of 12, in the USDA's Forest Disease Laboratory, working with a mentor, Dr. John Palmer. She attended the University of Maryland where she majored in Microbiology and Biochemistry. She received her PhD degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, working with Phillip Sharp on adenovirus capsid assembly, and remained at MIT as a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Richard Mulligan, where she was involved in the development of retrovirus-mediated gene transduction. She moved to Harvard Medical School as a faculty member to join the newly formed Department of Genetics in 1985. Dr. Cepko has launched and directed two graduate programs. She founded the Biological and Biomedical Sciences PhD Program with Dr. Clifford Tabin, and served as its Director for 11 years. She subsequently founded an enrichment program for self-selected PhD students from all of Harvard's life sciences graduate programs. This program, the Leder Human Biology and Translational Medicine, is now Co-Directed by Dr. Cepko and Dr. Thomas Michel.

Research Interests

Dr. Cepko's research is focussed on the development and diseases of the central nervous system (CNS), with emphasis on the retina. Her laboratory uses molecular and cellular methods to address questions regarding the mechanisms of cell fate determination. They developed retroviral vectors for tracing the lineages of cells in vivo in several locations in the CNS, where they found that many mitotic cells are multipotent, capable of making very different types of neurons, as well as glia. To trace sibling relationships among cells that migrate quite far apart, they developed the first bar-coded viral libraries in 1991, and showed recovery of single bar codes from individual cells taken from tissue. They also have developed gene therapy to prolong vision in genetic forms of blindness. Using genes that fight oxidative stress, inflammation, and/or provide metabolic support, they have prolonged vision in several mouse models of inherited retinal degeneration. In order to trace neurons that form circuits in the retina, and other locations in the nervous system, they have developed viral vectors based upon VSV as a transsynaptic tracer. To enable the manipulation of specific cell types in vivo in model and non-model organisms, they have developed new tools based upon nanobodies. 

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