Olson scheduled to present next President's Lecture

Jan. 20 talk will focus on "Heart Breaking and Heart Making"

By Aline McKenzie

In both his research and his personal life, Dr. Eric Olson enjoys creating things and meeting new challenges.

In addition to founding — and still chairing — UT Southwestern’s Department of Molecular Biology, Dr. Olson is one of the country’s most distinguished cardiac scientists, and he has created two biotechnology companies.

He and his 30 lab members investigate how the heart and blood vessels develop and how the process can go awry to cause disease.


“If I had to define my lab’s contribution, I would say we have discovered the major genetic pathways that control development of muscle tissues cardiac, skeletal and smooth muscle, and we have shown how these developmental pathways serve as the basis for muscle diseases.”
— Dr. Eric Olson

“I like building things,” he said. “My goal in coming to Dallas was to build a department that was interesting and fun, where people would share common interests but not necessarily work on the same scientific problems.”

Dr. Olson will present an overview of his work at the President’s Lecture Series, at 4 p.m. Jan. 20 in the Tom and Lula Gooch Auditorium. The title of his talk is “Heart Breaking and Heart Making.”

The lecture series was established in 2005 as a means for faculty members or senior administrators to express appreciation for those whose work helps them excel. The one-hour lectures are offered three times each academic year and feature a discussion in everyday language on the basics of research and clinical programs, along with the broad implications of those programs for health and medicine. Each talk is followed by light refreshments and an opportunity to visit informally with the speaker.

Endowed positions

Dr. Olson directs the Nancy B. and Jake L. Hamon Center for Basic Research in Cancer and the Nearburg Family Center for Basic and Clinical Research in Pediatric Oncology. He holds the Pogue Distinguished Chair in Research on Cardiac Birth Defects, the Robert A. Welch Distinguished Chair in Science, and the Annie and Willie Nelson Professorship in Stem Cell Research.

Dr. Olson grew up in North Carolina, the son of a biochemist father and a musician mother. From an early age, he had an interest in science as well as an affinity for music, playing several musical instruments while growing up.

“While I loved science, I didn’t have the desire to go to medical school because I was more interested in discovering new things than in learning known things,” he said.

He earned both his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he studied the biochemistry of cell membranes. He later received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater.

His first faculty position was at UT M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where he began studying how cells differentiate into their specialized, mature forms. While there, he decided to use muscle cells as the basis of his research. There are three types of muscle cells: cardiac, skeletal and smooth. Although the cells share the basic function of contracting to support movement, they employ different mechanisms. In addition, dysfunction of each type of cell can cause numerous diseases, which Dr. Olson said gave a medical immediacy to his work.

“I felt there was a lot of potential in the field,” he said.

Major discoveries

It didn’t take long before his efforts paid off with some major discoveries. In 1989, he and his colleagues at M.D. Anderson reported their discovery of MEF-2, a protein that controls the development of all muscle cell types in organisms ranging from fruit flies to mammals. They also discovered myogenin, a master regulator of skeletal muscle differentiation that was co-discovered by Dr. Woodring Wright, professor of cell biology at UT Southwestern. Building on these discoveries, Dr. Olson and his students went on to discover many of the key regulators of muscle development, including the proteins Hand1 and Hand2, which control the growth of the chambers of the heart, and myocardin, the long-sought master regulator of smooth muscle development.

In 1991, at age 35, Dr. Olson became chair of biochemistry and molecular biology at M.D. Anderson.

“I worried that becoming department chair might impede my science, but it was an interesting new challenge, so I went for it,” he said. “Plus, I liked the opportunity to be able to influence the scientific environment that I was working in and to create an environment that would allow people to be successful.”

After four years in the position, he moved to UT Southwestern in 1995 to establish the Department of Molecular Biology — something he had had no plans to do. Dr. Olson already had accepted a new position at Duke University, in his home state of North Carolina, and had begun setting up the lab and moving his people there. He had been having second thoughts, however, worrying that his new lab would be too small and constrictive.

By coincidence, Dr. Joseph Goldstein, chairman of molecular genetics at UT Southwestern, spoke at M.D. Anderson during Dr. Olson’s transition. With Dr. Goldstein’s encouragement, “a week later I was moving to Dallas,” Dr. Olson recalled.

“Here in Dallas was an opportunity to start something completely new,” Dr. Olson said. “I built my lab the way I wanted it. There was complete freedom, and the science here was incredible. I wanted people to be limited only by what’s in here,” he said, tapping his head.

Focus on heart muscle

Once he became established here, he focused his research on heart muscle, because he felt he had answered many questions that interested him in skeletal muscle. In recent years, his laboratory has discovered the mechanisms responsible for pathological cardiac enlargement and heart failure and has provided new therapeutic targets for pharmaceutical development.

His research now has three main thrusts: how transcription factors turn genes on and off during muscle development and disease; how small pieces of ribonucleic acid called microRNAs regulate muscle cells; and how small molecules, including microRNAs, control stem cells and influence how they “decide” to become one particular type of muscle cell.

“If I had to define my lab’s contribution, I would say we have discovered the major genetic pathways that control development of muscle tissues — cardiac, skeletal and smooth muscle, and we have shown how these developmental pathways serve as the basis for muscle diseases,” he said.

“For me, the thrill of discovery is the driving force. But that is only part of what science is all about,” he said. “Equally gratifying is the teamwork and the relationships I have been able to establish with my students and postdoctoral fellows from all over the United States and the rest of the world. Our lab is like a big family, and there are now members of our family who are emerging as the next generation of scientific leaders everywhere. At this stage of my career those relationships and being a part of this big network of talented young people is as gratifying as the science.”

Dr. Olson is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine. His numerous honors and awards include the Pollin Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Pediatric Research and the Pasarow Award in Cardiovascular Medicine. In addition, he received the Outstanding Investigator Award from the International Society for Heart Research and an inaugural Distinguished Scientist Award from the American Heart Association. He was most recently awarded the AHA’s National Research Achievement Award for work that the organization described as having “redrawn battle lines in the fight against disease.”

Outside the lab

Dr. Olson co-founded two biopharmaceutical companies with colleagues in Colorado. The first, Myogen, which has since been acquired by Gilead Therapeutics, focused largely on developing drugs to treat heart failure. After Myogen, Dr. Olson went on to co-found miRagen Therapeutics, which is dedicated to developing drugs from microRNAs.

“Starting new companies has allowed me to develop my career in interesting new directions and has helped keep me fresh by providing new challenges,” he said.

Dr. Olson and his wife, retired pediatrician Dr. Laurie Clark, have three children. In his free time, he plays guitar and sings in a rock band called The Transactivators. 

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