First QB3 scientific director elected to National Academy of Sciences

By Wallace Ravven

David Agard, PhD -----

David Agard, PhD, professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF and the founding scientific director of the UCSF-based California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research, was elected today to the National Academy of Sciences. Election is considered one of the highest honors for an American scientist.

Agard also holds a prestigious appointment as an investigator at UCSF in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. His election brings to 33 the number of UCSF faculty members chosen by the Academy for their “distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.”

Agard’s research aims to understand the fundamental relationships between structure and function of living systems, both at the molecular and cellular levels. He discovered a new mechanism by which proteins can be stabilized to survive in extreme environments, known as kinetic stability, which has implications for protein engineering. As part of his research, he also discovered the molecular mechanism that the drug tamoxifen uses to block the effects of estrogen, a process that has been shown to prevent breast cancer in some high-risk women. The discovery - a structural insight about how tamoxifen changes the normal shape of a receptor of estrogen molecules—provides clues to the design of more effective disease-preventing drugs. This work is being extended by recent structural studies on another related drug target, hsp90, a protein that aids in the folding and function of the estrogen and other steroid receptors.

His laboratory has also provided important insights into the structure of a small region near a cell’s nucleus called the centrosome. The team has clarified how centrosomes activate the assembly of microtubules - structures critical for separating chromosomes during cell division. His research has also pioneered the development of new microscopy techniques and related methods to determine structures at both the level of cells and molecules.

Agard was a major force in conceiving and launching QB3, one of four California Institutes for Science and Innovation established in 2000 by then-Governor Gray Davis to advance research critical to sustaining the state’s economic growth and competitiveness. Each institute involves collaborations among several UC campuses and often in conjunction with private industry.

Based at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus, QB3 is the only one of the Institutes devoted to research aimed at advancing human health. The research involves the use of computational tools of the physical sciences, mathematics and engineering to tackle such complexities as protein interactions, advanced imaging systems for diagnostics and treatment, and the development of new strategies to speed the discovery of potent new drugs.

Agard is among 72 new members and 18 foreign associates elected to the Academy. The National Academy of Sciences is a private organization of scientists, established in 1863 by a congressional act of incorporation, signed by Abraham Lincoln. It serves as an official adviser to the federal government, upon request, in any matter of science or technology.

UCSF is a leading university that advances health worldwide by conducting advanced biomedical research, educating graduate students in the life sciences and health professions, and providing complex patient care.