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Harvey Herschman, Gene Discovery

  • By Wendy Soderburg
  • Published Dec 4, 2000 8:00 AM

The audience for the recent UCLA Faculty Research Lecture was well aware of the lecturer’s professional qualifications.

For the past 31 years, Harvey Herschman has been an enthusiastic teacher and researcher at UCLA; he is a widely recognized expert in celllular biology and biochemistry. His work in gene discovery — investigating how signals from the outside stimulate genes and cells and then observing the cells to see what they do — was the basis for the lecture, titled “Finding New Genes, Determining Their Functions and Watching Their Expression in Living Individuals.”

But Herschmann has at least one unexpected entry in his resume. From 1980 to 1992, he was a Los Angeles County firefighter. He and his wife, Betty, were living in brush-filled Topanga Canyon, and Herschman was in the “call” firefighter unit. Why would someone who already had a full-time academic appointment at UCLA serve as a firefighter? “Involvement in the community — and self-protection,” said Herschman. “But then one morning at 3 o’clock, I was pulling a fire hose up an incline with 50 pounds of gear on my back, and suddenly I felt my chest tighten up,” he recalled. “I thought maybe I was getting a little too old for it, and decided to stop. But it was really enormous fun.”

It’s probably just as well that he gave up firefighting, as Herschman has more than enough to do here on campus. Besides teaching classes to graduate, dental and medical students and genetics-counseling trainees, he also serves as vice chair in the Department of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology and as the Crump Professor of Molecular Imaging. Then there are his duties as assistant director of the UCLA-Department of Energy Laboratory of Structural Biology and Molecular Medicine and as director of basic research for the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Herschman is understandably proud of his laboratory, which he said is probably more diverse than most labs. “I describe it as a ‘gene-discovery’ lab,” he explained. “We look for genes that are activated in different biological contexts and then ask how these newly activated genes and their products play a role in the change in the cellular behavior.”

One of Herschman’s best-known discoveries is a gene called COX-2, which spawned two anti-inflammatory drugs that have been the best-selling medications in the pharmaceutical market in the last few decades. The drugs, Vioxx and Celebrex, represent a new generation of non-steroidal medications to treat arthritis and other inflammatory diseases.

Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Herschman admitted that the escape from freezing winters was one of the reasons he was drawn to UCLA. “But it’s been really attractive to stay here because this is an excellent environment in which to do research,” he said. “The doors are open to different laboratories, so there is lots of collaboration between individuals, between departments, between the medical school and the College.

“Plus, the weather’s warm, so how can you go wrong?”