From the fall 2017 issue of The Spirit of Washington University
As a member of the Washington University School of Medicine National Council for nearly two decades, George Couch has had a close-up view of breakthroughs that have revolutionized the way scientists and physicians approach disease, from the sequencing of the human genome to research illuminating the key role of the immune system and the gut microbiome in conditions such as cancer, obesity, and malnutrition.
“It has been a privilege to be associated with the national council and be exposed to renowned faculty members who are making such a difference in the health of people around the world,” says Mr. Couch, who also has served as a Washington University trustee. “As my wife, Debra, and I began to think about our own legacy, we knew we wanted to help advance their work.”
This summer, the Couches became the latest members of the university community to make a significant commitment to support one of the School of Medicine’s highest priorities: personalized medicine. In recognition of their $10 million pledge, the university has named the newest research building on the medical school campus the Debra and George W. Couch III Biomedical Research Building.
“In an era of rapid change in the biomedical sciences, philanthropy plays a critical role in our ability to stay on the cutting edge of discovery,” says Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “This gift from George and Debra Couch provides resources to ensure that our School of Medicine continues to be a pioneer in the development of genomic approaches to diagnosis and treatment. We are extremely grateful for the Couches’ generosity and their enthusiastic participation in our efforts to improve human health.”
The Couches’ gift will establish an endowed fund that has been designated to support the Genome Engineering and Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Center (GEiC), which provides scientists throughout the university and beyond with access to innovative gene-editing technology, including a technique called CRISPR-Cas9. The GEiC—led by Jeffrey Milbrandt, MD ’78, the James S. McDonnell Professor of Genetics and head of the James S. McDonnell Department of Genetics—is part of a network of centers that are driving Washington University’s leadership in precision medicine.
Developed only five years ago, CRISPR-Cas9 is transforming biomedical research. “The technique allows us to edit genomes in a very precise way,” Dr. Milbrandt says. “You use a computer to identify the exact DNA stretch you want to alter and then execute the change rapidly and efficiently. And you can use the same toolkit on any organism.”
The technology has dramatically improved scientists’ ability to produce cellular materials, including mammalian cells, that serve as disease models for laboratory research. GEiC experts employ CRISPR-Cas9 and other gene editing techniques to create cells and cell lines with specific mutations and generate libraries of mutations that help investigators study disease processes, identify drug targets, and advance new treatments.
Much of the GEiC’s work involves induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC), cells taken from adult skin, urine, or blood and reprogrammed back into stem cell form. These stem cells then can be made into nearly any type of cell in the human body. The GEiC was among the first to edit the genome of iPSCs, providing Washington University researchers with a powerful tool for studying a broad range of diseases.
The GEiC is a world leader in the production of engineered cells and cell lines. Since its inception, the center has created more than 300 CRISPR-modified cell lines, including over 100 derived from iPSCs. The center has provided services to 200 laboratories at Washington University and about 70 academic institutions and corporations around the globe.
According to Dr. Milbrandt, genome engineering and iPSC technologies are developing at breakneck speed. “In order to keep pace, we must constantly invest in research and development,” he says. “The endowment established by George and Debra Couch will allow us to implement new techniques, invest in highly skilled personnel, and purchase equipment that will help us move genome editing into the therapeutic realm.”
Inspired to Help Others
Mr. Couch, who attended high school in St. Louis before earning a bachelor’s degree in economics from Stanford University and a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard University, has a deep relationship with the School of Medicine. His brother Gregory developed schizophrenia in his teens and was treated by faculty members at the medical school. He died suddenly of a heart attack in 1986.
“He was a wonderful person,” Mr. Couch says. “His dream had been to attend medical school and become a doctor, so my family decided to endow a professorship in his memory at the School of Medicine.”
The Gregory B. Couch Professorship in Psychiatry currently is held by Deanna Barch, a renowned scientist who studies cognitive and language deficits in disorders such as schizophrenia. The Couch family has continued to support the Department of Psychiatry over the years through generous gifts for research.
Mr. Couch, who is chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Couch Distributing in Watsonville, California, the largest independent beverage distributorship in the state’s central coast area, was appointed to the School of Medicine National Council in 1998. He completed 11 years of service with Washington University’s Board of Trustees in June.
Mrs. Couch, who owns and operates the Debra C designer clothing boutique in Carmel, California, says her husband is energized by his involvement with the School of Medicine. “Every time he comes back from a national council meeting, he is so excited to tell me about the research being done at the school.”
The Couches are active with many charitable organizations. Mr. Couch served as president of the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County and is a board member for the Panetta Institute for Public Policy and a member of the Montage Health Foundation Board to support the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. Mrs. Couch is a member and past president of SHARE Inc., a Los Angeles–based organization that raises funds for children with special needs. She also is a passionate advocate for animals.
Before the Couches finalized their plans to establish an endowment for personalized medicine, Mr. Couch asked his wife to visit the School of Medicine with him to learn about the initiatives their gift would support. The more they talked with Dr. Milbrandt and others, the more they were inspired to contribute to the work.
“If we are able to help mitigate suffering in any way, that’s a larger contribution to humanity than Debra and I ever envisioned we would have,” Mr. Couch says. “We feel very fortunate that we can do something that has such potential to help others.”
The Debra and George W. Couch III Biomedical Research Building provides 138,000 square feet of open, highly flexible laboratory space that promotes interdisciplinary research. The facility houses the James S. McDonnell Department of Genetics, its Genome Engineering and Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Center, and other programs that employ rapidly changing technology to address the most complex problems in human biology.
—By Mary Lee