R. Sanders Williams, MD


Robert W. and Linda L. Mahley Distinguished Professor

Phone: (415) 734-2000
Fax: (415) 355-0820
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Other Professional Titles

Professor of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco

Executive Assistant

Andrea Binger: (415) 734-2797

More About Dr. Williams

Dr. R. Sanders Williams is President of the Gladstone Institutes and Gladstone's Robert W. and Linda L. Mahley Distinguished Professor. He is also a Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

As a scholar and scientist, Dr. Williams discovered genes, proteins and pathways that control development, proliferation, cell size and differentiation of cardiac and skeletal muscle cells (myocytes). His laboratory defined basic principles of how these cells adapt to changing physiological demands associated with exercise or disease states. 

Dr. Williams served on the faculty of Duke University and of the University of Texas before assuming the role of Dean of the School of Medicine at Duke in 2001. He was promoted to Senior Vice Chancellor in 2007 and took on the leadership of the University’s global strategy in 2008. Through February 2010, he was the Richard and Patricia Johnson University Professor, Senior Vice Chancellor and Senior Advisor for International Strategy at Duke University. 

Dr. Williams led the Duke School of Medicine during a period notable for its ascendance from 11th to 2nd in the national rankings of NIH-grant support, a near doubling of its annual budget to more than $800 million, the addition of six new academic buildings, the first appointments of department chairs who are female or African-American and the founding of successful multidisciplinary institutes in genome sciences, brain sciences, global health and translational medicine. He was founding Dean of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School of Singapore and lead negotiator for major Duke programs in China and elsewhere. As an educator, he has been active in classroom teaching and has served as primary mentor to more than 40 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. 

Dr. Williams has served as president of professional societies, on editorial boards of leading academic journals such as Science, and on the Director’s Advisory Committee of the National Institutes of Health and the Board of External Advisors to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. He is active in promoting academic-industry relationships in the public interest and serves on the board of directors for the Laboratory Corporation of America. 

He has been honored by election to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, Alpha Omega Alpha, the American Society for Clinical Investigation and the Association of American Physicians. He is a Fellow of the American Association for Advancement of Science and for the California Academy of Science. In 2005 he received the Pioneer Award from the Samuel Dubois Cook Society for his work on behalf of social justice. 

Dr. Williams was educated and received postdoctoral training in public and international affairs, internal medicine, cardiology, biochemistry and molecular biology at Princeton University, Duke University, Harvard University (Massachusetts General Hospital), Oxford University and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

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Other Professional Titles

Professor of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco

Executive Assistant

Andrea Binger: (415) 734-2797

Research Interests

My research has focused on muscle plasticity: how cardiac and skeletal muscle cells sense and transduce signals from the environment to the genome, thereby altering their structural and metabolic capabilities to perform contractile work. For example, sustained exercise, such as long-distance running, alters mitochondrial biogenesis and specialized properties of the contractile apparatus, thereby increasing resistance to fatigue and reducing risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease. We have sought to elucidate the molecular signaling pathways involved in these events, which are important to physiology and medicine.

Using cell culture assays and genetically modified mice, we identified a number of signaling proteins that participate in muscle plasticity. For example, we discovered how the protein phosphatase calcineurin and its downstream effector protein NFAT act synergistically with the transcription factor MEF2 at transcriptional enhancer elements of selected genes, such as myoglobin, to medicate adaptive mechanisms by which skeletal myofibers acquire specialized contractile and metabolic properties in response to changing patterns of muscle contraction. We also characterized the function of a family of endogenous inhibitors of calcineurin, originally termed MCIP but subsequently renamed as RCAN proteins. We identified and characterized a novel member of the forkhead gene family that is essential for proper regulation of satellite cells. These endogenous muscle stem cells promote regeneration of skeletal muscles after injury and that participate in adaptation to exercise.

These and other studies from the Williams lab contributed to current understanding of mitochondrial biogenesis, calcium-regulated signal transduction, tissue regeneration and muscle plasticity.

Joined Gladstone


Why Gladstone?

Gladstone’s mission—science overcoming disease—and its culture—scientific excellence combined with generosity of spirit—inspired me.  Plus I wanted to experience, and contribute to, the special merits—focus, nimble decision-making, lack of bureaucracy—that should characterize an independent research organization.

Key Research Achievements

  • Co-founded the Center for Biomedical Invention, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, to translate discoveries in cell and molecular biology into useful medical therapeutics.

  • Defined basic principles of how skeletal and cardiac muscle cells adapt to changing physiological demands associated with exercise or disease states.

  • Discovered a novel transcription factor that modulates important steps in the transitions of adult myogenic stem cells to and from quiescence during muscle regeneration.

  • Characterized other proteins and pathways that modulate proliferation and differentiation of myogenic stem cells, hypertrophic growth of the heart, mitochondrial biogenesis and fiber type–specific gene expression in skeletal muscles.

  • Defined features of calcium-dependent gene regulation in myocyte plasticity.


  • Princeton University (AB), Biochemistry (1970)
  • Duke University (MD), Research Honors (1974)


  • Alpha Omega Alpha, Duke University School of Medicine
  • American Society of Clinical Investigation
  • Association of University Cardiologists
  • Association of American Physicians
  • Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences
  • Bristol-Myers Squib, Inc., Consultant
  • Laboratory Corporation of America, Board of Directors
  • Western Association of Physicians
  • SingHealth and Duke—NUS, Singapore, Chair, Academic Medicine Advisory Council
  • Editorial Boards—J Clin Invest, Am J Physiol, Circulation, Circ Res, Science, PLoS


  • Diplomate, American Board of Internal Medicine, cited for overall test score at the 99th percentile (1978)
  • Young Investigator’s Award, American College of Cardiology (1978)
  • Diplomate, Subspecialty in Cardiovascular Disease, American Board of Internal Medicine (1980)
  • Fogarty Senior International Fellowship, Oxford University (1984)
  • Glaxo Professorship for Clinical Investigation, Duke University (1988)
  • James T. Willerson Distinguished Chair in Cardiovascular Medicine, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (1990)
  • Lewis Conner Lecturer, American Heart Association Scientific Session (2001)
  • Richard and Pat Johnson University Professorship, Duke University (2003)
  • Sammie Pioneer Award, Samuel DuBois Cook Society, Duke University (2005)
  • Robert W. and Linda L. Mahley Distinguished Professorship, Gladstone Institutes (2010)
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