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Ira Herskowitz

(1946 - 2003)

Ira Herskowitz

While science is replete with tales of competition and even sabotage, the field of yeast genetics is open and welcoming. This pleasant tone derives, at least in part, from one of its founders, Ira Herskowitz, Ph.D., professor of genetics at the University of California at San Francisco and codirector of its program in human genetics. Dr. Herskowitz died in April of pancreatic cancer; he was 56.

His scientific accomplishments are as remarkable as his collegiality. A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine, he received the Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award, often a harbinger for the Nobel Prize, just days before his death. Several of his papers are considered classics and are standard course work for biology undergraduates.

Yeast cells, which grow in cultures that look and smell a bit like wheat beer gone bad, may not be an obvious tool for understanding how human genes work, but they are among the simplest organisms that package their DNA as humans do (i.e., as chromosomes in a nucleus). Before science developed the now-standard techniques of working directly with DNA, Dr. Herskowitz carefully generated, bred, and then observed yeast mutants in order to discover how genes make normal cells function. He studied the phenomenon that causes yeast cells with identical genes to behave and function differently (perhaps inspired by the fact that he himself was an identical twin), work that has been crucial to understanding not only how cells from a single human egg develop into different tissues, but also what causes cells to turn some genes on and others off.

Dr. Herskowitz felt compelled to share the broader implications of his yeast work. He was passionate about clarity and hated jargon; sometimes he would interrupt lecturers to remind them to explain a particular term. His own skill in explaining science became clear as early as 1967, when he and his twin brother helped edit a genetics textbook written by their father, a fruit fly geneticist. (His father returned the favor: at times, Ira Herskowitz asked his father to read his papers before publication to ensure they were comprehensible outside of the yeast community.)

Dr. Herskowitz wanted his work to yield both scientific and medical advances. He invented a technique to engineer yeast cells that produce insulin, and, more recently, was investigating how genetic variations affect cell response to drugs. Along with UCSF�s chair of biopharmaceutical sciences, Kathy Giacomini, Ph.D., he identified hundreds of human genetic variants in the proteins that transport chemicals into cells, and then analyzed the rate at which these variations affect their function. These proteins are essential for cancer drugs to penetrate tumors, and may explain why some tumors fail to respond to certain therapies.

While scientists like Dr. Giacomini are skilled in discovering how molecules move in and out of cells, geneticists are able to link this transport to genes and their variants. But collaboration between individual areas of the life sciences, like pharmaceutical science and genetics, is becoming increasingly rare. The collegiality of Dr. Herskowitz, as well as the broad impact of his research, encouraged just such co�peration, making possible the emerging field of pharmacogenetics and personalized medicine. Though the field is new, pharmacogenetics researchers have already established a strong and active network—surely a part of Dr. Herskowitz�s legacy.


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