Edmond Fischer, 1920-2021: Univ. Washington biochemist won Nobel Prize for protein research

Edmond Fischer. (Photo courtesy of Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings)

Edmond Fischer, Nobel Laureate and emeritus professor at the University of Washington biochemistry department, died peacefully in Seattle on Aug. 27 at age 101, according to the UW.

In 1992, Fischer received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with UW scientist Edwin Krebs for their research on how regulatory proteins in cells are controlled.

Other proteins and enzymes regulate cell growth, communication and many other processes. When the two began working together in 1950, little was known about the mechanisms of these proteins.

While studying a protein that helps manage energy use in muscle cells, the pair discovered that it was turned on by the addition of a molecule called phosphate and turned off by its removal. Reversible phosphorylation was also discovered to be an enzyme responsible for this process.

“The original reaction we described was really embarrassingly simple, and nobody would have paid much attention to it if it had not been absolutely crucial for the regulation of cellular processes,” recalled Fischer in a video.

The field has seen a flood of discoveries since their studies. The ability to reverse phosphorylation activates and deactivates many proteins within organisms of all kinds, including bacteria, plants, and humans. It regulates vital life events, including relaxation, contraction, cell division, and DNA replication.

The findings also laid the groundwork for research that led to the development of a host of drugs. Gleevec, an anti-cancer drug, and other drugs that alter protein phosphorylation are just a few examples.

Fischer’s early life was “clouded with uncertainties” he said in an autobiographical sketch for the Nobel Prize. Fischer was born in Shanghai, and was sent with two of his older brothers to Switzerland’s boarding school overlooking Lake Geneva at the age of seven.

He got a microscope from one of his brother’s on advice from his parents. “It was a treasure,” he recalled at age 99, according to a UW obituary.

Fischer initially wanted to study microbiology, but he switched to Chemistry after being advised by a professor that test tubes could be more useful than a microscope for modern microbiologists.

In 1956, he joined UW Biochemistry. The beauty of the area reminded him of Switzerland. He was officially retired by the University of Wisconsin in 1990 but continued attending UW Biochemistry seminars until the outbreak.

“The beauty of science is that you always know where you start from, but you never know where you end up,” Fischer had said, according to the Nobel Foundation.

“I will remember Eddy both as a scientist and as a warm, wonderful colleague,” Trisha Davis, professor and chair of the UW Department of Biochemistry told UW Medicine. He never repeated the same story again when he visited the department prior to the pandemic. He was an extraordinary man. He will be greatly missed by us.”

The department marked his 100th year with seminars that featured scientists he mentored or influenced. A talented pianist, he performed Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, which he also played for an audience online of Nobel laureates as well as young scientists.

He is survived by two sons and a stepdaughter, and four grandchildren including Elyse Fischer, who will earn her doctorate in Cambridge, England this fall in structural biology and biochemistry.

Publiated at Wednesday, 01 September 2021 15:05.05 +0000

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