WUSTL

Three faculty elected to National Academy of Sciences

Three Washington University in St. Louis scientists are among the 84 members and 21 foreign associates elected to the National Academy of Sciences this year. Election to the academy is considered one of the highest honors that can be accorded a U.S. scientist or engineer.

The university's new academy members are:

  • Stephen M. Beverley, PhD, the Marvin A. Brennecke Professor of Molecular Microbiology and chair of the Department of Molecular Microbiology in the School of Medicine; 
  • Robert D. Schreiber, PhD, Alumni Endowed Professor of Pathology and Immunology and professor of molecular microbiology in the School of Medicine and co-leader of the Tumor Immunology Program at Siteman Cancer Center; 
  • Joan E. Strassmann, PhD, professor of biology in Arts & Sciences.

“I’m still in shock,” said Beverley. “I got the news a few minutes before boarding a flight from London back to St. Louis, and I didn’t really need the plane.”

Beverley

Beverley
studies the biology of the protozoan parasite Leishmania, including virulence factors, host response and basic metabolic functions of the parasite. 

Leishmania infection, known as leishmaniasis, affects an estimated 12 million people worldwide. It is mainly spread by sand fly bites and is a major public health problem in the Mediterranean basin, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South America. Symptoms include large skin lesions, fever, swelling of the spleen and liver, and, in more serious forms of the disease, disfigurement and death. 

Beverley and his colleagues have probed many aspects of Leishmania biology through the development and application of advanced genetic tools. 

Accomplishments in recent years have included the discovery that one group of Leishmania parasites uses a genetic regulatory system called RNA interference. This system normally is used to control mobile genetic elements that can disrupt the parasite's chromosomes. But scientists can now use the same system to turn genes on and off in the parasite, helping to identify which genes are most important for the infectious process.

Beverley is also active in the hunt for new drug treatments and vaccines for Leishmania

Beverley earned a PhD in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, and did postdoctoral research at Stanford University. In 1983, he moved to Harvard Medical School, where he eventually became the Hsien and Daisy Yen Wu Professor and interim chair of the Department of Biological Chemistry & Molecular Pharmacology. In 1997, he joined the faculty at Washington University School of Medicine as head of the Department of Molecular Microbiology. 

Schreiber

Schreiber studies the intricate relationship between cancer and the immune system. With his colleagues, he has revived a century-old model of how the immune system interacts with tumors. 

When Schreiber began his research, the accepted model of this relationship, called cancer immunosurveillance, suggested that if the immune system recognized a tumor, it would attack the tumor with the same weapons it uses to eliminate invading microorganisms, not stopping until the tumor was destroyed or the immune system’s resources were exhausted.

The model revived by Schreiber and his colleagues, known as cancer immunoediting, also asserts that the immune system can attack tumors. But they propose that three very different outcomes can result. The immune system can eliminate cancer, destroying it; the immune system can establish equilibrium with cancer, checking its growth but not eradicating it; or the cancer can escape from the immune system, likely becoming more malignant in the process. 

The research has had far-reaching effects on clinical efforts to enlist the immune system’s help in the battle against cancer. Schreiber’s insight that the immune system can drive cancers into dormancy, for example, has suggested that immune therapy may one day allow cancer to become a chronic but controllable condition.

Schreiber and his colleagues recently demonstrated that some mutated genes in tumors can give rise to tumor-specific protein antigens. They showed that these antigens can be identified using next generation genomic sequencing and bioinformatic techniques, and their efforts now are focused on refining this approach to develop safe and effective personalized cancer immunotherapies.

Schreiber earned a doctorate from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1973. After a stretch as a postdoctoral fellow and faculty member at the Research Institute of the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, Calif., he was recruited to Washington University in 1985. He received a Washington University Faculty Achievement Award in 2008.

Strassmann’s work focuses on cooperative alliances that have occurred at several important steps in the evolution of life that have proven evolutionarily and ecologically successful.

Strassmann

In collaboration with her husband and colleague, David C. Queller, PhD, the Spencer T. Olin Professor of Biology in Arts & Sciences, she has measured genetic relatedness within colonies of many wasp species, including Polistes exclamans, and showed that kin selection theory predicts the existence and outcome of within-family conflicts of interest. They also have pioneered the use of DNA microsatellites for relatedness estimation. 

In 1998, they began working with the social amoebae Dictyostelium discoideum, a model organism for exploring the evolution of social interactions at the physiological, genetic and genomic levels. In a series of papers, they have demonstrated the power of social evolution theory in explaining multicellular organization, from developmental pathways to cell adhesion. 

She earned a PhD in 1979 from the University of Texas at Austin. From 1980 to 2011, Strassmann was on the faculty of Rice University in Houston, Texas, where she was the Harry C. and Olga K. Wiess Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. In 2011, she became a professor of biology at Washington University. That same year, she was elected president of the Animal Behavior Society.

MEDIA CONTACTS
Diana Lutz
Senior Science Editor
(314) 935-5272
dlutz@wustl.edu
Michael C. Purdy
Senior Medical Sciences Writer
(314) 286-0122
purdym@wustl.edu
EXPERTS @ WUSTL
Stephen Beverley
Marvin A. Brennecke Professor of Molecular Microbiology
Robert Schreiber
Alumni Endowed Professor of Pathology and Immunology