Science is in the bones for dad, daughter
If you had to bet which Glimcher on the faculty of Harvard Medical School -- dad Melvin or daughter Laurie -- might have recently made a key discovery in the fight against osteoporosis, odds are you'd choose Melvin.
The senior Glimcher, 81, has studied bone mechanics for 50 years, runs his own skeletal research lab at Children's Hospital, and was once chief of orthopedic surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. Bones are his thing.
Laurie Glimcher, 55, is a nationally known immunologist who runs her own lab at the Harvard School of Public Health. Lymphocytes and white blood cells are her true loves.
But last fall, when she and her research team deleted a gene called Schnurri-3 from some mice, they noticed an odd side effect. The mice unexpectedly grew new bone -- so much new bone that the normally hollow cavities where bone marrow is created filled up solid.
The discovery was so startling that Laurie Glimcher ran to the phone to call -- who else? -- her dad, who confirmed that her lab team had found something rare. Scientists have identified fewer than 10 proteins that play a role in stimulating bone growth. In a single experiment, Glimcher's lab, which published its findings in the May edition of Science, unearthed two more: Schnurri-3 and an enzyme it reacts with, WWP1.
Was the elder Glimcher, well, a bit jealous of his daughter's discovery?
``Oh no. Just proud," Melvin Glimcher said. ``Look, this is what happens with the next generation. It really makes getting older a lot easier."
The Glimchers don't work in the same office. They're not even in the same field. Nonetheless, they've made medicine a family business. Each attended Harvard Medical School; each was named the top researcher in his/her class; each was a tenured professor at 39; each has won national acclaim for his or her research.
He has the hotter temper and is more the perfectionist. She's the more efficient one -- to raise three children while heading her own laboratory, she had to be, she says. But otherwise, from appearance to intellect, they are startlingly alike.
``We're both adventurers. We're both creative. We're both stubborn, and rather impetuous," Laurie said.
As teenagers, Laurie and her sisters, Susan and Nancy, raced sailboats with Melvin in Martha's Vineyard. While Melvin could be a doting father, he had a fierce temper and would bark orders so loudly they could be heard on land.
``We were actually ahead in one race, and Nancy back-winded us with the jib and turned us around. All of a sudden, we were facing the wrong way," said Laurie. ``My sisters took one look at his face and they leaped overboard."
But not Laurie. With steel nerves, she stayed aboard and helped steer the boat back on course.
Melvin, sitting alongside Laurie in her office on Huntington Avenue, just a few blocks from his office on Longwood Avenue, laughs as the story is retold. But he makes no apologies for being demanding of his daughters.
Melvin's mother was a dynamic leader who ran political campaigns for Chelsea politicians during the Great Depression. To him, women were always just as capable as men.
Early in her career, when Laurie was working at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, her experiments were going so terribly one day she decided to head home at 3 p.m. She ran into her father on the street and told him how discouraged she was.
``Oh no," Melvin sternly told her. ``That is the wrong approach. It's when the experiments are not going well that you dig in and you don't give in and you work and you work."
She did, making her own mark in immunology with breakthrough discoveries regarding T-lymphocyte cells.
She became president of the American Association of Immunologists, was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, and has been a vocal proponent of building support networks for women scientists who are trying to raise their own families. (She won two Harvard awards this year for her dedication to the cause.)
Laurie Glimcher's lab's discovery last fall of the mouse with new bone growth marked their fourth joint paper, and promises to be their best discovery yet.
``Bones turn over. You get rid of old bone as new bone is formed. But as you get older, the forming of the new bone doesn't keep up," said Dr. Douglas Kiel, director of medical research at Hebrew Senior Life, a geriatrics research facility in Boston.
``Most of the new drugs slow down the dissolving away part," he said. ``What is needed in the field, what this is about, is on the other side of the equation."
At age 17 he: Ran off to join the Marines. When his mother barged into the recruiting office he told the sergeant, ``I've never seen this woman in my life." She ordered him home.
Favorite bone: The femur. ``It's such a beautiful example of structure and function."
Children: Kalah, Hugh, and Jake Auchincloss . Hugh is a third-year medical student at Harvard.
Favorite motto: Be efficient. ``If I have a list of things to do today, I get through that entire list."