Documentary discovers the roots of UW's rich scientific work
In celebration of the 150-year anniversary of its founding, the UW this year is highlighting the work of about two dozen scientists whose research has had important impacts on society. They're featured in a documentary, "Timeless Discoveries," which explores the school's scientific achievements.
Seattle Times higher education reporter
"Timeless Discoveries"The University of Washington College of Arts and Sciences' documentary about scientific discoveries at the UW will air on UWTV this week. It is also available online.
On UWTV (Channel 27): 4 p.m. Thursday and 1 p.m. Friday.
Online: On the College of Arts and Sciences website, www.artsci.washington.edu/150/sciencedoc.asp
As a researcher, Benjamin Hall specialized in studying gene transcription in yeast, a scientific process that, to a nonscientist, might appear to have no obvious payoff.
Yet Hall, now a professor emeritus of genome sciences and biology at the University of Washington, and his colleagues discovered and patented a process for using yeast to produce medically important proteins — including some used in anti-cancer vaccines. And the patents have made more than $250 million in technology licensing revenue for the UW.
Similarly, UW chemistry professor Michael Gelb has made a career of understanding the properties of enzymes. His work led to a new screening test to detect rare and often fatal metabolic disorders in infants.
This year, in celebration of the 150-year anniversary of its founding, the UW is highlighting the work of about two dozen scientists — including Hall and Gelb — whose research has had important impacts on society. They're featured in a documentary, "Timeless Discoveries," which explores the school's scientific achievements.
"Many of the world's greatest discoveries have been made by researchers who were encouraged to allow their imaginations free rein, without any direct practical applications in mind when they began their explorations," said Bob Stacey, interim dean of the UW's College of Arts and Sciences.
Penny LeGate, the documentary's producer, said, "I think we take this institution for granted because it's right in our backyard. ... I was just stunned at the level of expertise that's in all these departments." The documentary was underwritten by the Leonard P. & Helen M. Kammeyer Endowed Fund.
Hall joined the faculty in 1963, and became part of the genetics department that, over time, became the center of yeast genetics in the U.S. "We were the best yeast group in the world," he said.
In 1978, researchers at Cornell University made a key discovery that DNA could be introduced into yeast cells. Hall and the UW researchers found they could modify the control elements of yeast genes.
That discovery eventually led the UW researchers to find a way to get yeast to make proteins from viruses, as well as proteins encoded by human genes.
Around the same time, researchers at other institutions and in the private sector were looking for a better way to make a vaccine to protect people against hepatitis B, the most common serious liver infection in the world. Some hepatitis B carriers are at risk for developing liver carcinoma 30 years after the initial infection.
Eventually, the two lines of work came together and in 1986 resulted in a new vaccine for hepatitis B, which is now routinely given to most infants born in the U.S. and in 92 percent of countries.
The UW's process has also been used by the pharmaceutical company Merck to create the vaccine, Gardasil, that protects women from the virus that causes the most common forms of cervical cancer. Merck has distributed more than 87 million doses of Gardasil globally since its launch in 2006, according to a company spokesman.
And the UW technology has also been used by the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk to produce human insulin.
The impact of the hepatitis B vaccine are not yet showing up in health statistics, since it takes so long to develop the cancer after contracting the virus. "It'll be wonderful when there are many fewer people who are at risk from this liver carcinoma," said Hall, who is now working on decoding the genetics of the rhododendron.
In the next building over from Hall, Gelb is hoping to turn basic enzyme research into a lifesaving discovery. He has pioneered a newborn screening test that can uncover several relatively rare but fatal metabolic disorders.
Gelb and other scientists have worked for more than a decade to create a newborn screening test for lysosomal storage diseases, a group of about 50 similar diseases that are usually caused by the body's deficiency in producing certain enzymes.
Pharmaceutical companies have come up with drugs or procedures to treat about nine of the lysosomal storage diseases. Gelb helped invent a cheap, reliable test that uses a drop of an infant's dried blood to screen for some of the disorders.
One of those disorders is Krabbe disease, a degenerative disorder of the central and peripheral nervous systems. Gelb said infants who suffer from Krabbe disease often are in terrible pain during their short lives. But if the disease is diagnosed early in life, there is a new treatment option that works well in some cases.
Gelb's test for Krabbe disease is being used in the state of New York, and four other states have passed laws to test for Krabbe and some of the other lysosomal storage diseases. Gelb expects other states, including Washington, to follow.
Gelb said he was inspired to work on newborn screening tests after his wife had amniocentesis while she was pregnant. He was startled to discover that the test, which is expensive and invasive, was used to screen for only two genetic conditions. He was further inspired by a 1992 movie, "Lorenzo's Oil," about parents searching for a cure for their son's rare disease.
Together, the two things caused him to think about how he might use his expertise as an enzymologist to save lives.
"This is the most important thing I've done," he said.
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.