Tales of dead cells

David Ucker

David Ucker: “Aim to really understand things.” Photo: Joshua Clark

The University Scholars Program, now in its 28th year, honors faculty members for superior research and teaching, along with great promise for future achievements. The award provides $10,000 a year for three years.

Dead men tell no tales, the saying goes.

But David Ucker has found that dead cells tell many tales — even play an important role in regulating the immune system, so that it can recognize and attack foreign invaders while tolerating all the normal components of the body.

Ucker, professor of microbiology and immunology in the College of Medicine, studies directed cell death, a process known as apoptosis.

Examples in nature abound, from the disappearance of the tadpole’s tail in the adult frog, to the in utero loss of webbing between our fingers and toes. In the immune system, for example, “cells that respond to a specific antigen expand in number, then die,” he said.

Ucker and his colleagues found that the dead cells themselves help regulate the immune system. “Cells that die turn out to be immunosuppressive,” Ucker said. “They carry and display molecules from the tissues from which they came, which confers tolerance to those tissues and protects the self.”

When he was young, Ucker said, he was interested in “lots of stuff,” including chemistry, physics and electrical engineering. “But I found genetics most engaging, so I set my course for biology,” he said.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in life sciences at MIT and received his Ph.D. in biochemistry and biophysics from the University of California, San Francisco. Today, he says, his “appreciation has grown for the intellectual rigor in philosophy, the humanities and music,” and he enjoys travelling around the world to visit colleagues.

His advice to young scientists is to be curious and not take anything for granted “just because somebody told you so.” Rather, he advises, “aim to really understand things,” and look for the unexpected.

“For some people, it gets sort of scary if the answer is not what it’s supposed to be,” he said. “But I always thought that was the fun of it.”

Other University Scholars:

Michael Cho tinkers with biology

Vladimir Gevorgyan simplifies complexities

E. Douglas Lewandowski focuses on the heart

Constantine Megaridis changes interactions

Janet Richmond breaks ground

Diana Wilkie pinpoints patients’ pain

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