Urano named Schechter Professor of Medicine

From left, Clay F. Semenkovich, MD, Herbert S. Gasser Professor of Medicine, professor of cell biology and physiology and director of the Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Lipid Research; Larry J. Shapiro, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine; Fumihiko Urano, MD, PhD; Victoria J. Fraser, MD, Adolphus Busch Professor of Medicine and head of the Department of Medicine; and Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton at the ceremony honoring Urano as the new Samuel E. Schechter Professor of Medicine. (Credit: Mark Beavan)

Renowned diabetes researcher Fumihiko Urano, MD, PhD, is the new Samuel E. Schechter Professor of Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Urano’s research involves locating biomarkers that may lead to more effective treatments, or even a cure, for juvenile-onset diabetes, including the very severe form of the disorder known as Wolfram syndrome.

Urano came to Washington University in 2012, joining the faculty as an associate professor of medicine in the Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Lipid Research. The first Schechter Professor, Gustav Schonfeld, MD, was known internationally for his expertise in lipid metabolism. Urano also holds a joint faculty appointment in the Department of Pathology and Immunology.

The Schechter Professorship was established in 2002 by Samuel E. Schechter, MD, a 1941 graduate of the School of Medicine. Schonfeld, whose leadership at the university included service as head of the Department of Medicine from 1996 to 1999, held the professorship until his death in 2011.

“Dr. Schechter was very pleased to have Gus Schonfeld as the original occupant of his professorship because he had known the Schonfeld family since the 1940s,” said Victoria J. Fraser, MD, the Adolphus Busch Professor of Medicine and head of the Department of Medicine. “Just as Dr. Schonfeld did pioneering work in understanding how lipids contribute to cardiovascular disease, Fumi Urano is at the forefront of the effort to understand how inflammation and cellular stress contribute to the death of insulin-secreting cells, leading to diabetes.”

Urano’s laboratory uses a variety of techniques to study human diseases caused by a type of cellular dysfunction known as endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress. ER stress plays a role in chronic diseases, including diabetes and neurodegeneration. If ER stress cannot be resolved, cells self-destruct. In Wolfram syndrome and diabetes, dysfunction within insulin-secreting cells causes ER stress, which in turn contributes to local inflammation and cell death.

“I’m honored to have been chosen as the Schechter professor,” said Urano. “Dr. Schechter made enormous contributions to support research at Washington University, particularly Dr. Schonfeld’s pioneering work in lipid metabolism. I hope to carry on in both the footsteps of Dr. Schonfeld and in those of my friend, Dr. Alan Permutt, with whom I collaborated for many, many years in his work on Wolfram syndrome.”

Urano earned a medical degree in 1994 and a doctorate in pathology in 1998 at Keio University School of Medicine in Tokyo. Following a residency in anatomic pathology and a clinical and research training program in pediatric pathology and genetics, Urano completed a research fellowship in the laboratory of David Ron, MD, at New York University Medical Center, where he studied molecular endocrinology and endoplasmic reticulum biology. In 2002, he joined the faculty of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and served as an executive committee member of its diabetes research center until he joined the Washington University faculty.

In 1996, he received the Pediatric Cancer Foundation Award for the discovery of a novel diagnostic genetic test for Ewing sarcoma. He also received the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Innovation Award in 2004, the Worcester Foundation Award in 2005 and the Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award from the University of Massachusetts in 2007.

He was elected to the American Society for Clinical Investigation in 2011, and Urano has been an adjunct pediatric pathologist and clinical investigator at the National Center for Child Health and Development in Tokyo since 2010.

Schechter, a former professor emeritus of clinical medicine, started his career at Washington University School of Medicine as a young intern working at what was then the Jewish Hospital of St. Louis. His internship was interrupted by his service in the U.S. Air Force during World War II. After serving in England, France and Germany, he returned to Germany after the war to help at prisoner-of-war camps.

Following his discharge from the service, Schechter completed a residency in internal medicine at Jewish Hospital, where he met Rena Felstein, a Washington University alumna who was working at the hospital. They married in 1948 and had four children.

During his medical residency, he also met Alexander Schonfeld, MD, a young, immigrant physician interning at Jewish Hospital. During World War II, Schonfeld, his wife and their two sons had been taken from their home in Czechoslovakia to Nazi concentration camps, where one son died. The surviving son was Gustav Schonfeld, who eventually became the first Schechter Professor.

Schechter had a long history of supporting Washington University. Two of the Schechter’s children lost their lives after long battles with depression. In their memory, Schechter established the David Joel Schechter and Leslie Schechter Memorial Fund for Research in Depression at the School of Medicine. David was a Washington University graduate.

To honor daughters Kay and Miriam, who also are alumni, he endowed scholarships in Arts & Sciences. After his wife’s death from pancreatic cancer, Schechter initiated the annual Rena Schechter Memorial Lecture in Cancer Research.

Schechter retired in 1991. In 2002, he married Norma Bonham. That same year, he received the School of Medicine’s Second Century Award. Schechter died in 2004.

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.