Timothy J. Mitchison

Harvard University

Election Year: 2014
Primary Section: 22, Cellular and Developmental Biology
Secondary Section: 21, Biochemistry
Membership Type: Member


Tim Mitchison has Scottish roots, and comes from a family with a long science tradition. He trained as a biochemist at Oxford, then moved to UCSF for his PhD. He worked with Marc Kirchner, where he discovered dynamic instability of microtubules (1984), and part of the mechanism by which chromosomes move to the poles of the mitotic spindle during cell division (1986). He returned briefly to the UK to work at the NIMR with David Trentham on fluorescent probe chemistry. He joined the Pharmacology dept. at UCSF as an assistant professor in 1988, where his group worked on conserved molecular and cellular mechanisms involved in cell motility and cell division. In 1997 he moved to Harvard Medical School to build the Institute of Chemistry and Cell Biology with Stuart Schreiber, which was dedicated to building small molecule tool for fundamental research. In 2004 he was a founding faculty member of the new Dept. of Systems Biology at HMS, where he continues to work on cell division mechanisms and the pharmacology of anti-cancer drugs. He has a long-standing interest in PhD education, and current co-directs the Harvard PhD program in Systems Biology.

Research Interests

I trained as a biochemist at Oxford, than as a Cell Biologist at UCSF. During my PhD work with Marc Kirschner at UCSF I discovered Dynamic Instability of microtubules, a fundamental aspect of cytoskeleton biology, and since then I have studied the biochemistry, dynamics and spatial organization of microtubules and actin filaments, with a focus on cell division mechanisms. Much of my group’s work in this area is based on live fluorescence imaging, and we have been at the forefront of application of novel optical methodologies to living cells. I moved to Harvard Medical School in 1997 to co-direct the Institute of Chemistry and Cell Biology, a collaboration between chemists and cell biologist to develop and apply small molecule screening capabilities in academia. An early success of this collaboration was Monastrol, a drug that blocks human cells in mitosis by inhibition of an essential Kinesin motor protein. More potent compounds with the same mechanism were developed by industry, and tested in patients as an anti-cancer therapy, starting in 2005. This effort spurred my interest in cancer chemotherapy, and in more rational approaches to drug development in general, that are now major research areas in my group. In 2004 I helped Marc Kirchner found a new department at HMS, Systems Biology, that brings systematic and quantitative methods to bear on problems in basic cell biology and medicine. Systems pharmacology is a major interest area within the department, lead by Peter Sorger, and I play a senior advisor role in that effort.

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