April 11, 1997

How cells “talk” subject of Sutherland lecture

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Edmund Fischer, Ph.D.

How cells "talk" subject of Sutherland lecture

The complex mechanism of cellular communication is essential in all aspects of thought, movement and coordination.

The ability to manipulate these interactions on a cell-specific level may one day lead to cures for most, if not all, of today's diseases.

But despite many significant advances, those days are not quite here yet. The dynamics of cell communication was the subject of the First Annual Earl W. Sutherland Lecture, which featured Edmund H. Fischer, Ph.D., Nobel Prize winner and professor emeritus of Biochemistry at the University of Washington.

The lecture, entitled "Cell Signaling by Tyrosine Phosphorylation: The Other Side of the Coin," drew a large, diverse crowd last Thursday in Light Hall and was sponsored by the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics. Interest was so high that attendees found themselves sitting in the aisles as the lecture began.

Fischer shared the 1992 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on reversible protein phosphorylation as a biological regulatory mechanism and has also served on a number of scientific committees, including advisory boards for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Fischer's work closely paralleled that of the lecture's namesake, Dr. Earl W. Sutherland, who won the 1971 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on cyclic AMP at VUMC. The two were close colleagues and even used the same metabolic pathway ‹ glycogen breakdown ‹ to arrive at their research conclusions.

Sutherland discovered cyclic AMP and demonstrated its role on processes such as heart contraction, steroid release, and blood pressure. The "second messenger" signaling mechanism that Sutherland described is now one of the basic stepping stones of cutting edge research.

Over his career Fischer has helped to further describe the process of signal transduction ‹ the way cells communicate with each other and the intracellular mechanisms that they use to respond to external stimuli such as hormones, environmental signals, and therapeutic drugs.

"Cells require thousands of commands to keep them in control," said Fischer. "Our challenge is to describe the receptors that lead to cell activation."

For the Sutherland Lecture, Fischer described the ongoing paths that his research has taken and the conclusions yielded along the way.

His research began as a collaborative study with Edwin G. Krebs on the regulation of glycogen phosphorylase. The results from this study defined the series of reactions leading to the activation of this enzyme in response to hormones or calcium. As a consequence of these investigations Fischer uncovered the role of reversible protein phosphorylation in the overall regulation of cellular processes.

Dr. Charles Rawlinson Park, professor emeritus of Physiology, opened the lecture with some remembrances of Sutherland's character and accomplishments.

Foremost among Park's recollections was that "Sutherland was very lucky. He was always in the right place at the right time." Park also emphasized that success in science depends on many factors such as luck but that Sutherland's strength was the fact that he was able to recognize luck when it happens.

Park then went on to describe Sutherland's remarkable memory. "It is unnerving when someone else remembers experiments that I did 20 years ago that I don't even remember."

According to Fischer, it helps to think of the human body as a sort of biological television set to understand what is going on in cells. A signal that begins in one place goes through thousands of different 'connections' to reach the final step of showing up on the screen.

"The body is the same way except that it took us only 50 years to develop the television and it has taken a few billion years to develop our bodies. Hence, our bodies are a few billion times more complicated," said Fischer.

The complex nature of this cellular communication system is necessary for survival. Unfortunately, it also proves to be one of biochemistry's toughest riddles, the answers to which always seem to be very close and yet very far away.

"What is simple is always wrong and what is complicated cannot be understood," said Fischer to underscore this point.

An understanding of the mechanisms that control cell communication would give hope for better treatment of many diseases such as cancer and AIDS.