Peter M.J. Burgers, PhD, has been named the Marvin A. Brennecke Professor of Biological Chemistry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton and Larry J. Shapiro, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, announced the appointment. The named professorship will provide continuous funding for Burgers’ research, which focuses on DNA replication and repair.
“Peter is an internationally recognized leader in the biochemistry and genetics of DNA replication and cellular responses to DNA damage,” says Thomas E. Ellenberger, DVM, PhD, the Raymond H. Wittcoff Professor and head of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at the School of Medicine. “His lab’s mastery with protein biochemistry, combined with Peter’s encyclopedic knowledge and creative intellect, make him the go-to person for understanding DNA replication mechanisms. And yet, he still finds time to work at the bench. He is a remarkable scientist.”
The professorship is named for Marvin A. Brennecke, MD, a 1930 graduate of the School of Medicine. Brennecke spent the bulk of his career in Hawaii where he served as the Territory of Hawaii Government Physician for the Koloa District and later as medical director of Waimea Hospital in Waimea, Kauai. Brennecke received the Distinguished Service Award from the Washington University Medical Center Alumni Association for his many years of service to the people of Hawaii. Brennecke died in 1994, leaving a gift to the university that provides ongoing funding for three named professorships. In addition to Burgers’ appointment, the gift supports the Brennecke Professor of Molecular Microbiology and the Brennecke Professor of Biophysics.
“I’m delighted with the recognition the Brennecke professorship provides,” Burgers says. “I’m also glad because it will allow me to provide research training for additional students and postdoctoral researchers in my lab, and it comes in very useful at a time when National Institutes of Health funding is tight.”
Burgers studies DNA metabolism in yeast cells, which typically have very similar regulatory mechanisms to those found in human cells. He is particularly interested in the DNA replication fork, where active duplication of the genetic material takes place and the mechanisms that come into play when replication goes awry because of DNA damage or other stress.
“There are two aspects of these responses that are the focus of much of my work,” he says. “One is that of cell cycle checkpoints, where a cell will halt DNA replication until the stress has been resolved or the damage has been repaired. The other is that of mutagenesis, where the replication machinery in the cell starts inserting mutations as a kind of last-ditch effort to survive.”
Malfunctions in these replication control processes can lead to DNA instability, which can harm the cell’s ability to control its own growth and lead to cancer.
“Every time you have DNA instability and the generation of mutations, every pathway in the cell can be affected,” he says. “But the pathways that show up most prevalently are the ones where control of proliferation has been lost, and that generally asserts itself as cancer.”
Born in the Netherlands, Burgers earned a doctorate at the State University of Leiden in 1977. He came to Washington University in 1983 after postdoctoral work at the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine and at Stanford University School of Medicine. At Stanford, Burger studied under Arthur Kornberg, MD, DSc, a former Washington University faculty member who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1959. Burgers is a member of the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center. In 2010, he received an honorary doctorate in medicine from the University of Umeå, Sweden.
Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked fourth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.