Our loyal friend, Kuan-Teh Jeang, “Teh” for friends and colleagues, passed away unexpectedly at the age of 54 on the evening of Jan. 27. Great shock and sorrow were apparent in the avalanche of email messages from the very many international colleagues with whom Teh interacted over the years. Many of us came to know Teh as an energetic and gifted scientist for whom we had much respect and affection.
Teh was born in 1958 in Taichung, Taiwan, and had two older brothers. Teh spent his childhood in Libya and came to the U.S. in 1970. At age 16, he went to college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and, after just two years, started medical school at Johns Hopkins University, receiving both an M.D. and a Ph.D. by age 25. His Ph.D. thesis was on the regulation of gene expression in cytomegalovirus with Gary S. Hayward as his adviser. At Hopkins, Teh met his wife, Diane, a graduate student in the same laboratory. They married in 1984 in Iowa, where Teh completed his medical internship. The next year, Teh started his postdoctoral work at the National Institutes of Health in the laboratory of George Khoury at the National Cancer Institute. Khoury died much too early at the age of 43 in 1987, but he was Teh’s role model and greatly influenced him in his professional life. In recognition of his scientific achievements, Teh recently was selected to deliver the 2012 George Khoury Lecture at the NIH on cellular transformation by the human T-cell leukemia virus, or HTLV-I.
Teh worked at the NIH in Bethesda for 27 years, exactly half of his life, and at the time of his death was chief of the Molecular Virology Section in the Laboratory of Molecular Microbiology. His major research interest was the human immunodeficiency virus and HTLV-I, with an abundant production of more than 300 scientific publications on the molecular details of virus replication and the disease-causing mechanisms. Teh was a true experimentalist with an interest in the implementation of new technologies to get to the next level of understanding of the biology of human pathogenic viruses. He stopped bench work in 2004 only to serve as editor-in-chief of the journal Retrovirology.
to see some of Kuan-Teh’s work published in The Journal of Biological Chemistry.
HTLV-1 is linked to the development of adult T-cell leukemia and a variety of inflammatory manifestations, including HTLV-1-associated myelopathy. Teh was the first to show that HTLV-1 transcription is regulated through the cAMP signaling pathway, implicating roles for CREB and CBP before these proteins were identified clearly and cloned. His research team also contributed to our understanding of how the viral Tax oncoprotein activates the pro-inflammatory factor NF-kB. More recently, he proposed a role for deubiquitinases in the regulation of TRAF6-mediated NF-kB signaling.
Teh’s work also has advanced our understanding of genetic damage in virus–cellular transformation. In 1990, he first reported that the HTLV-1 Tax oncoprotein repressed DNA repair. Thereafter, he characterized the important roles of dysregulated mitotic checkpoint and AKT activation in cellular transformation. His work contributed to the elucidation of the role played by the spindle assembly checkpoint in oncogenesis, helping to explain how the loss of multiple checkpoints alters cancer tropism in vivo.
Teh had a longstanding interest in understanding the viral and cellular factors that govern HIV-1 gene expression in infected human cells. In the late 1980s, his lab showed that HIV-1 uses an unprecedented mechanism of transcription that is dictated by an RNA-binding protein, Tat, which binds a nascent viral RNA target, TAR, the first RNA enhancer element described. Subsequently, his group characterized cellular RNA-binding proteins that regulate HIV-1 replication, including the TAR RNA-binding protein, or TRBP, that later became known as an important factor of the cellular RNA interference machinery.
His lab recently completed a genomewide screening for human cell factors needed for HIV-1 replication. Using novel technology, Teh extended his interests in RNA biology through the identification of small RNAs (i.e., siRNAs and miRNAs) that have biologically important roles in viral infection, cellular metabolism and virus-induced pathogenesis.
Despite all these accomplishments, one could argue that Teh’s biggest contribution to science probably lies in his role as mentor for young scientists. Teh trained 37 international postdoctoral fellows, and seven more are in his group at the NIH today. He was a fantastic mentor of young scientists who have since spread across the globe. Many flew into Washington to attend the funeral ceremony Feb. 9. Teh was attentive, supportive and gentle but at the same time demanding of his postdocs. Importantly, he positioned himself as an unselfish role model for them, working essentially 12-hour days, seven days a week. During the evening and night, one never had to wait long for reply emails. His mentoring commitment also is reflected in his many professional and society services. For instance, Teh was a standing member of the AIDS Molecular and Cellular Biology Study Section, where he had a reputation for being strongly supportive of new investigators.
Teh always had a special interest in the area of scientific publication. For instance, in 1994 he joined the editorial board of the Journal of Biomedical Science of the National Science Council of his native Taiwan. He was an avid advocate for ways to improve the journal’s impact factor. He left the journal in 2004 for an important new activity: the launch of the journal Retrovirology, which he co-founded. Since the early years, he had been an advocate of the open-access publishing format. His talent to kick off new initiatives paid off, and Retrovirology, in less than 10 years, became among the most-cited journals in the field. In addition, he served on the editorial boards of numerous journals, including the Journal of Virology and the Journal of Biological Chemistry.
Teh was a scientist with a vision and a broad interest in all aspects of scientific endeavors. He also was a true scientific leader, starting scientific debate, writing editorials, sitting on many committees, orchestrating new book volumes and organizing international meetings on diverse topics. He was president of the Society of Chinese Bioscientists in America in 2010 and voiced strong support for increasing the representation of Asian-American scientists in leadership positions.
He was the recipient of an extraordinary number of awards, most recently the International Retrovirology Association’s Dale McFarlin Award in 2011, Biomed Central’s Open Access Editor of the Year award in 2010 and the John’s Hopkins University Woodrow Wilson Award in 2009. Teh was elected to prestigious societies, including Academia Sinica in Taiwan.
Teh had an infectious enthusiasm and winner’s mentality both at work and at play. He was a skilled tennis player and chess player, a gifted writer and a great debater with strong opinions on nearly all subjects of science and life in general. Additionally, he had a passion for current events and a love of travel, movies, food and music.
Teh’s death is a blow to the retrovirus research community, and we sorely will miss his scientific leadership. He has been central to much of what we have done together as well as being a supportive and generous friend to many of us individually. Teh’s life was much too short, but his legacy and our memories of him will last forever. Our hearts and condolences are with his wife, Diane, and his three children, David, 23, Diana, 20, and John, 15.
Ben Berkhout (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor at the University of Amsterdam. He worked as visiting research associate in the Jeang lab from 1988 to 1990. Since then, he and Jeang worked together in various capacities, including the launch of the Retrovirology journal.