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‘It’s personal’

Researcher’s past spurs quest to know cells’ signals

By Fariss Samarrai

A trail of diabetes runs through David Brautigan’s life and research career.
His mother suffered through much of her adult life with the disease, eventually went blind and died of complications. His aunts and uncles had the disease, and three of his brothers are living with it. Brautigan comes from a large Irish Catholic family — he has six siblings — and diabetes has touched and hurt them all.

“It’s personal,” he said. “I want to understand this disease.”

Like a range of other killer diseases, the defects of diabetes begin at the genetic level. Brautigan, a biochemist, studies cells at the molecular level — the place where diseases can be stopped, once understood. He visualizes a time when predictive medicine is the norm, when diseases are squelched before they start, a time when doctors will use customized drugs based on a patient’s genetic profile to stop diabetes or cancer or birth defects.

To get there from here, Brautigan says, a lot must be gleaned from the inner workings of cells from mice and frogs, fruit flies and yeast.

“The beauty is, there is a great unity of life processes inside cells at the molecular level, whether it’s yeast or human,” he said.

David Brautigan visualizes a time when predictive medicine is the norm, when diseases are squelched before they start, a time when doctors will use customized drugs based on a patient’s genetic profile to stop diabetes or cancer or birth defects.

As director of the multidisciplinary Center for Cell Signaling at U.Va., Brautigan leads a team of biomedical researchers in the Health Sciences Center in a quest for fundamental understanding of cellular processes that affect how genes are regulated. This work is expected to lead to innovative treatments for disease.

Signals are passed back and forth between cells that tell when to activate a gene and when to turn it off. As scientists gain better understanding of these signaling processes, new drugs are being developed to attack the root causes of disease. Already the pharmaceutical industry has developed drugs that directly treat diabetes and inhibit cancer.

“We’re working [in his lab] at the fundamental discovery stage for much of this,” Brautigan said. “The human genome has been mapped, but we understand the function of only about one-third of the genes.”

Brautigan did not set out in life expecting to be a scientist. He came from a working-class family in Detroit. Neither of his parents attended college. His mother was a homemaker, his father a maintenance man without a retirement plan.
“My mother’s idea for me was that I’d get a college degree someday and come back and work for Ford Motor Company,” he said.

Brautigan did go to Kalamazoo College, where the enrollment was the size of his high school. There he developed a love for chemistry and found he had an intuitive understanding of complex science.

“I could study a textbook and anticipate what was on the next page,” he said.
But he didn’t know that the next page of his life would involve research. He thought he’d become a high school chemistry teacher in Detroit. “I had good teachers in high school,” he said. “I admired them.”

He worked his way through college in the cafeteria, doing maintenance work, eventually serving as a teaching assistant.

“When I was growing up I really didn’t know what a Ph.D. does,” he said. “But in college I had the advantage of small classes with inspiring faculty members, and I was given good advice.”

The advice led him to Northwestern University, where he earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry. After a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Washington under Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Edmond H. Fischer, Brautigan joined the faculty at Brown University, where he conducted research in cell signaling for 13 years and directed the graduate program in molecular and cell biology. He also taught and advised undergraduate, graduate and medical students, satisfying the teacher in him.

Brautigan came to U.Va. in 1994 to direct the center here.

“There has been a strong history of groundbreaking cell-signaling research at U.Va.,” he said. “The center is well-funded, and we’ve been able to recruit outstanding faculty and staff.”

Brautigan does a limited amount of classroom teaching while directing research in his current position but has found other ways to promote science education.

Recently he helped start a program in biotechnology at Piedmont Virginia Community College. Graduates from the program are finding jobs as research specialists at U.Va. and in the local biotechnology industry. A few years ago he helped lead an innovative hands-on program for high school science teachers in Northern Virginia.

“Scientists have to be curious and optimistic,” he said. “The program was designed to inspire teachers to encourage students in this way.”

Brautigan said many kids in middle school and high school are taught science as a “glossary” rather than as an activity. He hopes to see more students learn the excitement of discovery, the thrill of investigation.

“Science is about being the first person with the view from the mountaintop,” he said. “It’s about blazing trails.”

And stopping killer diseases in their tracks.


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