Mecham named interim head of cell biology and physiology

Robert Mecham, PhD, has been named interim head of the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.


Mecham, the Alumni-Endowed Professor of Cell Biology and Physiology, will replace Helen Piwnica-Worms, PhD, the Gerty T. Cori Professor, who has been named vice provost, science, at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Larry J. Shapiro, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, announced Mecham’s appointment.

“Bob won the School of Medicine’s distinguished Carl and Gerty Cori Faculty Achievement Award last year for his pioneering research into the structures that join cells into tissues and organs,” Shapiro says. “He has been a valued member of the faculty since 1977, and I have every confidence in his ability to lead the department through this transition.”

Shapiro also recognized Piwnica-Worms for her contributions to the department and the School of Medicine.

“Helen is known as a pioneer in her studies of the basic mechanisms that regulate cell division, but her leadership has extended far beyond the lab and into the clinic and the classroom,” Shapiro says.

Mecham focuses most of his research on the extracellular matrix, or the structures between cells that join them together to form tissues and organs.

An important component of these structures is a protein known as elastin, which allows tissues to stretch and to return to their normal shape after stretching. Elastin is found throughout the body, but the heart, blood vessels, lungs and skin have the highest elastin levels.

“Understanding how to make new elastic fibers is one of the biggest challenges for treating numerous diseases, and for making artificial blood vessels and other artificial tissues,” Mecham says. “Elastin is a complex polymer, and we still don’t know how to replace elastin once it is damaged.”

Mecham uses mouse models to investigate the roles these proteins play in tissue function and to study diseases linked to problems in the matrix. These include disorders caused by environmental factors, such as heart disease and emphysema, and genetic conditions like Marfan syndrome and supravalvular aortic stenosis, a dangerous disorder that narrows the aorta and restricts blood flow.

Mecham was vice chairman of the Executive Committee of the Faculty Council at the School of Medicine from 2001-2003 and served as chairperson of the Curriculum Evaluation Committee. He also is a member of several university-wide committees.

Mecham was the first president of the American Society for Matrix Biology from 2001-02. He received the university’s Distinguished Teacher Award in 1993, 1994 and 1995; the Distinguished Mentor Award in 2004; the Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award in 2006; and the Distinguished Researcher Award in 2008. He received the Carl and Gerty Cori Faculty Achievement Award in 2012. Mecham is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Mecham has been extensively involved in medical and graduate school instruction at the School of Medicine. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Utah and a doctorate in biochemistry from Boston University. He has two honorary degrees from universities in Europe.

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 sixth 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.