Fuchs goes boldly where no stem cell biologist has gone before

She has won the 2022 Bert and Natalie Vallee Award in Biomedical Science
Alyson Smith
Dec. 22, 2021

Elaine Fuchs began her career with an act of rebellion, submitting a three-page essay on the inadequacies of the GRE in lieu of test results with her graduate school applications. Such breaks with tradition would come to define her approach to science.

Elaine Fuchs

Fuchs, a professor of mammalian cell biology and development at the Rockefeller University, has won the 2022 Bert and Natalie Vallee Award in Biomedical Science for her foundational research showing how stem cells create, maintain and repair our skin.

“I began my career in biochemistry and slowly migrated into stem cell research and cancer, so for me to receive this award from the ASBMB is really special,” Fuchs said. “I look forward to being at the annual meeting and talking about the work that we have been doing over four decades.”

In her nominating letter, Helen Blau, a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, wrote, “Innovation is a hallmark of Fuchs’ work. She has repeatedly exploited a diversity of approaches to probe old questions in new ways.”

A desire to impact human health motivated Fuchs’ career transitions: from physical chemistry as an undergraduate to the biochemistry of bacterial sporulation as a Ph.D. student to skin cell biology as a postdoc and in her own lab. Each transition required a leap into the scientific unknown.

“You can never solve an equation about life,” Fuchs said. “It took me much of my career to realize that that’s what I enjoy most about biology. There are always new questions that emerge from each experiment.”

Although Fuchs no longer works at the bench, she is as passionate about her research as when she started her lab 40 years ago. She continues to inspire junior researchers to become fearless in their approach to science.

Exploring the secrets of skin disease

As an assistant professor, Fuchs used the nascent recombinant DNA technology to hunt for genes behind human skin disorders. Her lab focused on keratins, the major structural proteins in skin cells, identifying mutations that disrupt keratin assembly and the skin’s unique protective qualities.

By engineering transgenic mice with keratin mutations and comparing their pathologies with images in dermatology textbooks — an unconventional approach in the early 1990s — Fuchs and her lab discovered the mutations underlying several human skin disorders. These landmark studies unlocked a new paradigm of studying mutated proteins in mice to define the genetic bases of human disease.

Fuchs’ lab then explored how stem cells create, remodel and repair the epithelial barrier at the skin surface and how these processes go awry in cancer. Her team aims to find drugs that target cancerous epithelial stem cells with minimal harm to normal stem cells, leading to more effective and safer treatments.

Most recently,Fuchs’ lab discovered an epigenetic memory recorded within the chromatin of tissue stem cells after stress. It provides new insights into chronic disorders like psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, asthma and inflammatory bowel disease. In her nominating letter, Mina Bissel of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory wrote, “Fuchs’ team continues to develop and adapt new tools and technology to tackle big questions in stem cell biology.”

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Alyson Smith

Alyson Smith is a recent Ph.D. graduate in cell biology from Scripps Research in La Jolla, California. She now works as a scientific writer for Vala Sciences Inc.

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