When asked what he enjoys about his job, Renal Division Director Marc R. Hammerman, M.D., doesn’t hesitate.
“The opportunity to be creative in a scientific sense and in an administrative sense,” he says. “Absolutely, that’s it.”
Lynn Wesselmann, administrative assistant for the Renal Division, has worked with Hammerman for nearly a quarter of a century, and she readily agrees that ingenuity is one of her boss’ strengths.
“Marc has a knack for coming up with solutions,” she says. “He seems to enjoy the challenge of taking on a problem that appears to be impossible and solving it in some novel way.”
As an example, she cites Hammerman’s work to expand the division’s dialysis programs by increasing services available to patients, expanding opportunities for learning and research available to medical students, and refining business aspects of the enterprise, which now involves five dialysis centers and hundreds of employees.
In the laboratory, Hammerman — also the Chromalloy Professor of Renal Diseases in Medicine and professor of cell biology and physiology — focuses on an inherently creative process: growth. He studies how the kidney and the pancreas grow during the early stages of development.
Hammerman used what he has learned about kidney and pancreas growth to devise a novel approach to curing kidney failure and diabetes with organ transplants. The new approach involves xenotransplantation, or transplanting an organ from one species to another.
As in human transplants, the immune system’s rejection of the transplanted organs has always been a primary obstacle.
Hammerman’s innovative approach to this difficulty uses embryonic precursors to animal organs instead of the organs themselves. The transplanted tissues aren’t stem cells, he emphasizes, because they’re not cells that can grow into anything — they’re locked into developing into a pancreas or a kidney.
Hammerman hopes that allowing organ precursors to grow into organs inside a patient might greatly reduce chances that the immune system would reject the transplant.
His idea has been very successful in early animal tests. A recent experiment used transplants from pig embryos to cure diabetes in rats without also employing any immunosuppressive drugs.
“There are other people who are doing similar types of studies of the kidney, but they’re doing it more to study specific biological processes than to get a fully functional organ,” says the Renal Division’s Jeffrey H. Miner, Ph.D., associate professor of medicine and assistant professor of cell biology and physiology. “Marc is the only person I know who is doing it to try to really replace the diseased kidney.”
Hammerman was born at St. Louis Maternity Hospital in 1947, grew up in University City and earned undergraduate (1969) and medical (1972) degrees from Washington University. After a few short stints at prestigious East Coast institutions like the National Institutes of Health, Johns Hopkins University and Massachusetts General, he returned to Washington University’s School of Medicine in 1977.
“This is one of the great medical centers in the world, and being on faculty here has permitted me to do pretty much what I have wanted to do,” he says. “Inevitably, there are rough times in any scientist’s career, and for many of us the support of an institution like Washington University is required for getting over those rough times.”
Hammerman hasn’t just experienced rough times — he’s actively courted them, pursuing his research interests across several different specialties, including developmental biology, tissue engineering, nephrology, xenotransplantation and diabetology.
“What I’ve done during my career is chase the answer to a question, and that’s meant I’ve had to move from field to field, which is challenging, because every time I move into a new field, I have to deal with a new set of players and politics,” he says. “But I think that’s the only way to do science — you have to chase an idea.
“And if it’s a good idea, you will invariably need to cross boundaries.”
In 1991, David Kipnis, M.D., the Distinguished University Professor of Medicine and former chair of the department, appointed Hammerman head of the Renal Division.
“Marc is internally very driven, but that drive isn’t expressed in egocentric activities like it is for some physicians,” says Kipnis, who also is the Distinguished University Professor of Molecular Biology and Pharmacology. “He expects a great deal from his staff, but no more than what he expects from himself.”
Hammerman is overseeing preparations for the division’s 50th anniversary in 2006 and has started planning a variety of activities, including a dinner and a reunion. This October, the American Nephrology Society will hold its annual meeting in St. Louis in honor of the upcoming anniversary.
Hammerman’s administrative role keeps him in his office a majority of the time. He runs the division from the office and also works to advance his new approach to kidney and pancreas transplants, hoping to see them tested in humans before he retires in another decade or so.
“I always know where Marc stands and where he wants us to go,” Wesselmann says of Hammerman’s leadership of the division. “I can also be sure that we will get there, and that it will probably be an interesting ride.”
Hammerman is soft-spoken, friendly and frequently prone to humor at his own expense.
Marc R. Hammerman
Degrees: Hammerman earned a bachelor’s degree in 1969 and a medical degree in 1972, both from Washington University
University positions: Director of the Renal Division, the Chromalloy Professor of Renal Diseases in Medicine and professor of cell biology and physiology
Years at the University: 27
Family: Wife, Nancy; daughter, Megan, 26; son, Seth, 28
Hobbies: Making jewelry and writing short stories
Pictures of his family and original paintings by his wife, Nancy, an art teacher in the Pattonville school district, decorate the walls of the office.
“I never could draw,” Hammerman says with a smile when asked about his wife’s paintings. “My son can do it, too, but neither my daughter nor I are any good at it.”
Evidence of Hammerman’s personal creative forte is near at hand, though. He wears a silver ring on his right hand with a large green stone, a moss agate. He made the ring 30 years ago, when he had just graduated from the School of Medicine.
“I took a class in jewelry-making after school in junior high school and sort of picked up the basics of the art,” Hammerman explains.
Hammerman made Nancy’s engagement ring, which features a green-faceted sapphire. His favorite piece is a necklace with a blue-faceted sapphire.
He has given many of his projects to Nancy and to his daughter, Megan, a social worker in San Francisco. And he’s even made a few for his son, Seth, a medical student at the University of Vermont.
“There’s sort of a moment of truth while you’re soldering these silver pieces together — you have about three seconds or less between the time the solder melts and the silver melts,” he says. “That’s the art — they both have to be at the right temperature at the right time, and that’s where the skill comes in.
“And you know, the worst thing that can happen is that you melt a little silver and you waste a lot of time, right?” he adds with a quiet laugh.
For Hammerman, though, one gets the sense that the pursuit of creative solutions is probably never a genuine waste of time.