Gilman Memorial Symposium: Celebrating a larger-than-life presence
By Deborah Wormser
An estimated 500 of Dr. Alfred G. Gilman’s family, friends, colleagues, trainees, and admirers gathered on Oct. 7 to remember and celebrate a one-of-a-kind scientist, campus executive, mentor, and man.
“The Alfred G. Gilman Memorial Symposium is a fitting tribute to a man whose science was dazzling, whose leadership at UT Southwestern Medical Center and Texas was unexcelled, and whose character was beyond reproach,” said Dr. Michael S. Brown, who shared the 1985 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine with Dr. Joseph L. Goldstein for their discovery of the underlying mechanisms of cholesterol metabolism.
“Each of the speakers is a world leading scientist, and their willingness to speak at this symposium is a testament to the high regard in which they held Al Gilman. Every one of the scientists who was invited accepted the invitation enthusiastically. All of them knew Dr. Gilman, and all of them held him in the highest regard,” added Dr. Brown, Director of the Erik Jonsson Center for Research in Molecular Genetics and Human Disease. “Alfred Gilman was not only a pioneering scientist. He was a caring and inspirational mentor, a visionary leader, and a courageous champion of integrity in science,” he added.
Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern, set the tone for the day in welcoming Dr. Gilman’s wife, Kathryn, other members of his family, his “extended family” – more than 50 alumni of the Gilman laboratory – and the generous benefactors who made possible a Distinguished Chair in the late Nobel Laureate’s name. Those filling the Excellence in Education Auditorium included eight Nobel Prize winners (six of them presenters) and five winners of the Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, as well as recipients of the Shaw Prize and the Breakthrough Prize.
“Anybody who knew Al would be confident in knowing that he would take special pleasure in a day that celebrates science,” said Dr. Podolsky.
Known for both his salty language and steadfast loyalty to those he befriended, Dr. Gilman joined the UT Southwestern faculty in 1981 – four years after he had identified G proteins while at the University of Virginia – to become Chair of Pharmacology, a position he held for more than 20 years.
In 1994, Dr. Gilman shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on G proteins, major players in the language that cells use to communicate. At that time, G proteins were known to be important to signal transduction, the process by which cells receive signals about conditions outside the cell and that activates a range of cellular responses.
G proteins are now recognized as central to fundamental processes such as vision, smell, hormonal secretion, and thinking. Problems in G protein signaling lead to a range of diseases including cancer, cholera, and whooping cough. Presentations on smell, thinking, and cancer were among the highlights of the symposium.
In 2004, Dr. Gilman became Director of a new research center at UT Southwestern, the Cecil H. and Ida Green Comprehensive Center for Molecular, Computational and Systems Biology, and also became Dean of UT Southwestern Medical School. In 2006, he was named Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost of UT Southwestern.
Dr. Gilman left the Medical Center in 2009 to become the first Chief Scientific Officer of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), a $3 billion effort to improve research and treatment of cancer in the state and to recruit cancer biologists to Texas.
At CPRIT, Dr. Gilman recruited out-of-state reviewers to ensure an unbiased, merit-based grant review process but left the institute after he encountered some “dark forces,” Dr. Podolsky said, predicting that Dr. Gilman’s approach will be vindicated when the history of CPRIT is written.
One of the symposium’s presenters, Dr. George D. Yancopoulos, President and Chief Science Officer at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, entertained attendees by sharing Dr. Gilman’s central role as one of the three founders of the company created and run by scientists to focus on using gene technology to regenerate neurons.
Regeneron founder, President, and Chief Executive Officer Dr. Leonard “Len” Schleifer was an M.D./Ph.D. student in Dr. Gilman’s lab at the University of Virginia, and asked for his mentor’s help in establishing the venture. Soon after starting the company, Dr. Gilman recruited two trusted colleagues, Drs. Brown and Goldstein, to join the board of Regeneron, which Science magazine in 2015 named one of the top two global biopharmaceutical employers for the fifth year in a row.
Dr. Yancopoulos entertained the audience while recounting how after the usual struggles of a new pharmaceutical company, Regeneron developed a drug for a rare autoimmune disease that proved to be highly effective in clinical trials and won approval to go to market only to see the company’s stock price fall dramatically. He explained that Wall Street punished the scientist-run company for refusing to charge so-called orphan drug prices (i.e., exorbitant ones) for a condition affecting only 300 people. Regeneron’s leadership didn’t back down and the stock market came around when the company’s approach led to important new therapies, such as one of the first two PCSK9 inhibitors, a new class of cholesterol-lowering drugs.
“Al Gilman was a researcher of high distinction, a leader of extraordinary skill, and someone who could be trusted to make the right decision in the most ticklish of situations,” said Dr. Goldstein, Chair of Molecular Genetics. “He was indeed a pillar of sanity and integrity – a unique combination that is rarely seen among academic scientists and administrators.”
Many speakers commented on Dr. Gilman’s unique talent for knowing where the field of science was going and making sure UT Southwestern was at the forefront via new departments and initiatives such as Neuroscience and Systems Biology.
The day was summed up by the current Chair of Pharmacology, Dr. David Mangelsdorf. Known as “Davo Mango,” he was recruited to UT Southwestern as an Assistant Professor by Dr. Gilman and is now known internationally for his work on orphan nuclear receptors.
“Al holds a special place in the heart of this institution. His legacy is all around us. Indeed, one of the reasons this place is what it is today is because of Al,” Dr. Mangelsdorf said. “Many of us are here specifically because of him. He not only recruited us, but he fostered and supported us as both junior and senior colleagues. He had a wonderful and uncanny ability to identify talent, provide an incubator for that talent, and push that talent to take bold but intelligent risks.
“One of the best pieces of advice he ever gave me was ‘Don't practice safe science!’” said Dr. Mangelsdorf.
Dr. Brown, a Regental Professor, holds the W.A. (Monty) Moncrief Distinguished Chair in Cholesterol and Arteriosclerosis Research, and the Paul J. Thomas Chair in Medicine.
Dr. Goldstein, a Regental Professor, holds the Julie and Louis A. Beecherl, Jr. Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Research, and Paul J. Thomas Chair in Medicine.
Dr. Mangelsdorf, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator at UT Southwestern, holds the Alfred G. Gilman Distinguished Chair in Pharmacology, and the Raymond and Ellen Willie Distinguished Chair in Molecular Neuropharmacology in Honor of Harold B. Crasilneck, Ph.D.
Dr. Podolsky holds the Philp O’Bryan Montgomery, Jr., M.D. Distinguished Presidential Chair in Academic Administration, and the Doris and Bryan Wildenthal Distinguished Chair in Medical Science.