September 30, 2010

Discovery Lecture, reception honor Hawiger’s achievements

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Jacek Hawiger, M.D., Ph.D., foreground, smiles during the reception following his Discovery Lecture. (Photo by Mary Donaldson)

Discovery Lecture, reception honor Hawiger’s achievements

Jacek Hawiger, M.D., Ph.D., crisscrossed the world and the cell's membranes during his Discovery Lecture last week. The lecture kicked off the fall series and capped a day of celebration that honored Hawiger's 20 year-tenure as chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

With his family beaming from the audience — including siblings who traveled from Poland and Austria to celebrate — Hawiger talked of the “Joy of Crossing Borders,” both personal and scientific.

Hawiger came to the United States in 1967, after earning his doctoral degrees and completing his residency training in his native Poland. He traveled by transatlantic ship to New York — “no jet-setting back then,” he quipped — for a postdoctoral fellowship at Vanderbilt University.

His fellowship quickly evolved into a faculty position in the Department of Medicine, which he held until 1978. He then spent time on the faculties of the University of California at San Diego, Boston University and Harvard University, before returning to Vanderbilt in 1990 as the Oswald T. Avery Professor and Chair of Microbiology and Immunology.

Hawiger and his colleagues have pioneered a new platform for delivering proteins across cellular membranes into the interior of cells. The platform could be used to ferry proteins into cells for gene therapy (replacing defective proteins with functional copies).

The group also has used the cell-penetrating technology to deliver an inhibitor of a protein called NF-kappa-B — a master regulator of inflammation — into cells. Their inhibitor blocks nuclear import of NF-kappa-B, preventing it from activating a variety of inflammatory signals. The nuclear import inhibitor has shown promise in animal models of lung inflammation, sepsis (a deadly whole body inflammatory state), and type I diabetes.

“We're verifying new targets — and inflammatory and autoimmune conditions — for these first-in-class therapeutics,” Hawiger said.

The investigators are working to move their discoveries into clinical trials.

For a complete schedule of the Discovery Lecture series and archived video of previous lectures, go to