Three faculty members elected to National Academy of Sciences

Three Washington University scientists are among the 72 members and 18 foreign associates elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Election to the academy is considered one of the highest honors that can be accorded a U.S. scientist or engineer.

Wayne Yokoyama
Wayne Yokoyama

WUSTL’s new academy members are Wayne M. Yokoyama, M.D., the Sam J. Levin and Audrey Loew Levin Professor of Research in Arthritis and professor of medicine and of pathology and immunology, Aaron Ciechanover, M.D., D.Sc., visiting professor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine and the Research Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, and Clifford M. Will, Ph.D., the James S. McDonnell Professor of Physics in Arts & Sciences.

The 2007 inductees bring the total number of active members to 2,025 and foreign associates to 387. Ciechanover will be a foreign associate, a nonvoting member of the academy with citizenship outside the United States.

Yokoyama is internationally recognized for his research into an important component of the immune system that protects against viruses and tumors.

Yokoyama’s studies have helped show how various mechanisms license, restrain and unleash natural killer (NK) cells. His lab was the first to provide the molecular basis for a theory known as the “missing self” hypothesis.

Aaron Ciechanover
Aaron Ciechanover

Prior to the discovery of NK cells, scientists had conceptualized the immune system’s method for recognizing invaders as comparable to that of police using an all-points bulletin: an alert went out that a particular invader had been seen, and immune system cells searched for and attacked that invader when they found it.

NK cells opened up a new possibility more comparable to that of a border guard. Scientists suspected NK cells were checking the molecular “credentials” of everything they encountered and could attack if the proper identification wasn’t forthcoming. In 1992, Yokoyama’s lab was the first to identify a receptor on the surface of NK cells that enabled this process.

The receptor inhibits NK cell function when it recognizes the appropriate credentials, which in this case are major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I molecules. Normally present on the surface of cells, these molecules are often absent on tumors and virus-infected cells, allowing the NK cell to attack the abnormal cells. The paper was recently selected for The Journal of Immunology’s “Pillars of Immunology” series.

Yokoyama, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, chief of the Division of Rheumatology, and director of the Center for Arthritis and Related Diseases, was the 2001 recipient of the Novartis Prize for Basic Research in Immunology, which is awarded only once every three years at the International Congress in Immunology. He earned his medical degree at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He came to the University in 1995.

Clifford Will
Clifford Will

Ciechanover was a co-recipient of the 2004 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Ciechanover won the prize for his contributions to the discovery and description of a process cells use to discard unwanted proteins. The process involves tagging unwanted proteins with a small molecule known as ubiquitin. After tagging, the proteins are broken down in cellular waste disposal units known as proteasomes.

Eliminating faulty and unnecessary proteins helps cells maintain protein quality and is essential for the cell cycle, DNA repair, gene transcription and some immune functions. Defects in the process are linked to many inherited diseases and can contribute to the development of cancer.

Ciechanover earned a medical degree from Hadassah Medical School in Israel. His association with the University began with a two-year sabbatical during which he worked with Alan Schwartz, Ph.D., M.D., the Harriet B. Spoehrer Professor and head of the Department of Pediatrics. Ciechanover has been a visiting professor at the University since 1987, spending a portion of each year in the Department of Pediatrics.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, Ciechanover received the prestigious Albert Lasker Award in 2000, and last year Washington University presented him with an honorary doctor of science degree.

Will is known worldwide as one of the leading experts in using experimental and observational data to explain Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

A theoretical physicist, his research interests encompass the observational and astrophysical implications of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, including gravitational radiation, black holes, cosmology, the physics of curved space time and the interpretation of experimental tests of general relativity.

A native of Hamilton, Ontario, Will earned a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics and theoretical physics in 1968 from McMaster University, followed three years later by a doctorate in physics from California Institute of Technology.

Will joined WUSTL’s physics faculty in 1981 and served two terms as department chair (1991-96; 1997-2002). Also a member of the University’s McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences in Arts & Sciences, he was named the McDonnell professor in 2005.