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Dr. Gregory Brewer is the professor of Neurology and Medical Microbiology, Immunology, and Cell Biology at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine

In alignment with the annual Society for Neuroscience conference and in recognition of the commitment of researchers working hard to understand neuro-related diseases, in the month of October, we would like to honor Dr. Gregory Brewer as our “Cell Culture Hero.”  Dr. Brewer is known as the father of modern neural cell culture thanks to his invention of key reagents used to grow and maintain neurons in culture – B-27® Serum-Free Supplement and Neurobasal® Media. 

Dr. Brewer currently holds the Stark Endowed Chair of Alzheimer’s Research and is Professor of Neurology and Medical Microbiology, Immunology and Cell Biology at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.

His current research focus involves studying the cellular and molecular aspects of neuroscience, especially relating to the development and diseases of neurons in the hippocampus of the mammalian brain as these are involved in learning, memory and diseases such as stroke, epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s Disease.  In addition his research is focused on understanding how neurons communicate.  Dr. Brewer received his bachelor of biology degree from the California Institute of Technology, his Ph.D. at University of California San Diego and completed his postdoctoral work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

We asked Dr. Brewer about his experience as a neurobiologist and his career, what advice he had to give other researchers and what inspired him to become a scientist. His responses are below.

What advice would you give researchers?
I have had the privilege of being instructed by or working with 7 Nobel Prize winners.   Memorable advice from Richard Feynman was to gain understanding of a process by considering the limits.  Applied to biology he often examines dose-response of drugs and nutrients to discern linear, u-shaped or log-log relationships.  From Gerry Edelman he remembers, “Don’t study the Schmoo.”  Life-long advice from Salvador Luria was to not just think of the next experiment, but to design the best experiment, which requires one to first consider what is best. 

When did you first get interested in science? What inspired you?
I decided at age 10 to become a scientist and started reading Scientific American.  Through the BSCS experimental biology curriculum, I decided at age 15 to become a biologist. I am fascinated by the intricate design evident in all of life. Neuroscience caught my interest from undergraduate days, but cellular/molecular departments did not exist then.  A sabbatical opportunity in the lab of Carl Cotman at Irvine began my career in neuroscience, beginning the opportunity to study individual neurons and the development of their intricate connections.

What are three highlights of your scientific journey?
Invention of Neurobasal® medium and B-27® Serum-Free Supplement for the culture of neurons in 1993. This culture system enables studies of drug discovery, target identification, neurotoxicology, physiology, neural stem cells and development.

Invention of Hibernate® medium (1996) which allows for the manipulation of neurons at ambient CO2 on ice for at least 48 hours while retaining their viability and is a suitable transport media used to ship various tissues.  Hibernate® media led Dr. Brewer to the creation of his company BrainBits, LLC in 2003 which ships live neurons by express mail globally.

Using adult neuron culture to study brain neuron aging and development of the EORS theory of aging in 2010.

How do you believe the invention of B-27® Serum-Free Supplement and Neurobasal® Media have changed the course of neurobiology research? 
Neurobasal® Medium/B-27® Serum-Free Supplement enabled the study of individual neurons by fluorescence microscopy and electrophysiology as well as development of axons, dendrites and their connections, i.e. synaptogenesis.  In addition, it opened the realm of pre-clinical determinations of dose-response pharmacologic responses on multiple “identical” neuron networks that previously had to be studied with multiple animals.

What is your future outlook on the next fifty years? 
At the start of my career, many biologists were purifying enzymes. Then it was cloning genes.  Now we see knock-out mice for every gene.  In the future, I see epigenetic modulation of genes and pathways, more systems biology, neural prosthetics and increasing efforts to modulate systems of genes by natural products and multi-drug therapy to target the complexity of diseases like Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular and metabolic syndrome.  We may even see a therapy to prolong the healthy age-span.