BS, Molecular Biology and Chemistry, Vanderbilt University
PhD, Pharmacology and Cell Biophysics, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine
Growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado was curious about his world. “I always liked asking the why questions, the how questions, and why do things happen the way they happen,” he remembers. His unceasing drive to explain the physical world around him paved the way for Sánchez Alvarado to become a pioneering regeneration expert.
In high school a gifted high school biology teacher, who taught students through a combination of inductive inquiry and hypothesis-driven thinking, cemented his love for biology. “He taught me a way of looking at biological problems and processes in a way I hadn’t seen before,” Sánchez Alvarado says, adding that he regularly kept in touch with his teacher until his passing. “He used to send me his lesson plans, especially when he came up with new ones, to see whether or not I approved. Are they scientifically sound? Do they inspire you? Do you think the students are going to like this? We had very lengthy phone conversations.”
After high school, Sánchez Alvarado moved from Venezuela to the United States to study molecular biology and chemistry at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and then at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, where he earned his PhD in pharmacology and cell biophysics. In 1994, he joined the laboratory of Donald D. Brown, MD, in the department of embryology at the Carnegie Institution of Washington as a postdoctoral fellow. In 1995, he was appointed to the position of staff associate. It was during this period that Sánchez Alvarado developed his abiding interest in explaining the processes of regeneration.
Not satisfied with the available research organisms, he went looking for a better one, subsequently setting his sights on the planarian, a free-living aquatic flatworm whose regenerative powers had been well characterized by earlier American researchers such as T. H. Morgan, PhD. If an adult worm is cut apart, almost any piece can form a new, fully functional animal within just two weeks. On a trip to Barcelona with his first postdoctoral researcher, Phil Newmark, PhD, they collected a unique strain of the planaria Schmidtea mediterranea in an abandoned fountain. Sánchez Alvarado was able to subsequently establish the planaria as a modern research animal, studied by multiple other investigators. The Planarian Core in the Reptile and Aquatics Facility at the Stowers Institute now furnishes planaria to researchers and educators across the globe.
From 2002 to 2011, Sánchez Alvarado was a faculty member in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine. In 2005, he was named an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). He joined the Stowers Institute in 2011, and was named its scientific director in 2019, succeeding founding Scientific Director Robb Krumlauf, PhD.
Outside of science, art, running, nature, and reading are among Sánchez Alvarado’s varied interests. He enjoys spending his downtime with his wife, developmental biologist Tatjana Piotrowski, PhD, and two children. He also maintains a generous schedule of community outreach.
The Sánchez Alvarado Lab explores the process and genetic control of regeneration and tissue maintenance. The group has developed the flatworm Schmidtea mediterranea into a powerful research organism for the study of regeneration.
The Sánchez Alvarado group has identified dozens of genes and genetic programs that drive regeneration and ensure the anatomical and functional integration of newly-made parts into older, pre-existing tissues. They have also demonstrated that adult somatic stem cells are the only proliferating cell type and generate all the different cell types found in an adult flatworm.
Continuing work that began with studies of the planarian flatworm, the Sánchez Alvarado Lab has expanded their research to other organisms positioned further up the evolutionary tree. These organisms include the apple snail Pomacea cannaliculata and a new vertebrate model of regeneration, the turquoise killifish Nothobranchius furzeri as shown in a 2020 Science paper. By identifying and characterizing regeneration at the level of molecular genetics, the team aims to better understand how higher organisms, including humans, develop biologically.
Priscilla Wood Neaves Chair in the Biomedical Sciences
Member, National Academy of Sciences
Member, Latin American Academy of Sciences
Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
National Institutes of Health, MERIT Award
Ellison Medical Foundation Senior Scholar
National Academy of Sciences Kavli Fellow