Irvine, Calif., June 2, 2015 – Nobel laureate and former UC Irvine biochemist Irwin “Ernie” Rose, who did groundbreaking work on enzymes critical to breaking down and disposing of unwanted proteins in plants and animals, has died. He was 88. Family members said he died in his sleep early Tuesday in Deerfield, Mass.
Rose, a consummate scientist, was described by friends and colleagues as humble, generous and endlessly curious. On the day it was announced that he was a co-winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in chemistry, he tucked two test tubes in his shirt pocket and that night quietly slipped into a building named after another UCI Nobel laureate, Frederick Reines, where he used the university’s powerful mass spectrometry facility to analyze the contents.
“We were honored to have Dr. Rose grace the UC Irvine community with his formidable intellect and unwavering curiosity about fundamental biological and chemical processes that are the foundation for life,” said UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman. “We extend our deepest condolences to his family.”
Rose and two other researchers discovered how cells can regulate the presence of a certain protein by marking unwanted proteins with the polypeptide ubiquitin. Once labelled, the proteins are then broken down rapidly in cellular “waste disposers” called proteasomes.
For the work, Rose shared the world’s highest scientific honor with Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko of the Israel Institute of Technology – and received a lifetime of international acclaim that he hadn’t sought.
“You get so much attention and notoriety. Anybody would want to do something worthy of achieving a Nobel Prize; it’s such an honor,” Rose said in a 2005 interview at UCI about the award. “It’s been different. I’ve been able to do some work, but not as much as I’d like to.”
He was the third UCI researcher to earn a Nobel Prize. In 1995, F. Sherwood Rowland won a Nobel in chemistry and Reines was awarded one in physics.
National Academy of Sciences President Ralph Cicerone, who was UCI chancellor when Rose won the Nobel Prize, said “He was an amazing biochemist and a wonderful person.”
Cicerone said they had stayed in touch for years about pressing scientific issues. “We had talked many times to discuss climate change and he was eager to take actions to slow it down. He was also very concerned about research funding for young scientists.”
Rose was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on July 16, 1926, and forged an unparalleled career as one of the world’s top biochemists, beginning with the decision, as a teenager in Spokane, Wash., to devote his life to investigating the complex activities within cells.
He earned a doctoral degree at the University of Chicago in 1952 and spent the better part of his career as a research scientist at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. There, during the late 1970s and early ’80s, he helped reveal how ubiquitin molecules – the body’s cellular building blocks – facilitate the breakdown of old and damaged proteins.
These findings of the “kiss-of-death” mechanisms inside cells proved revolutionary, transforming the field of cell biology and ultimately fostering a new understanding of the molecular activity present in cancer and other diseases.
“Ernie is a truly brilliant and dedicated scientist – his work is his life,” said Ann Skalka, senior vice president of basic sciences at Fox Chase Cancer Center in 2005. “Ernie was truly instrumental in uncovering the ubiquitin pathway; all of the seminal work was done in his laboratory at Fox Chase. However, Ernie has never tried to take any credit for it. But the Nobel selection committee got it right, much to the delight of all of his colleagues.”
After retiring to Laguna Woods, Calif., in 1997, Rose accepted a special research position with UCI’s Department of Physiology & Biophysics, where he studied the mechanisms of fumarase, an enzyme involved in the citric acid cycle, the cellular pathway by which higher organisms convert food into energy. He maintained a rigorous routine, working in his on-campus lab three to four times a week and publishing, on average, one research paper a year.
Rose quickly became a beloved colleague and mentor to students and faculty. “Ernie showed up in my office one day looking for a place to hang his hat. No phone call, no email – just showed up,” recalled longtime friend Ralph Bradshaw, then a professor of physiology & biophysics. “I told him we’d be delighted to have him.”
He said Rose’s intelligence and knowledge were “in the stratosphere compared to the rest of us in the field.”
Despite his brilliance, Rose was “a joy to have in the lab,” Bradshaw said, “because both prior to and after winning the Nobel Prize, he would help any student or young postdoctoral researcher who was having a hard time with an experiment. He would sit with them and try to figure out what was going wrong.”
When Rose was awarded the Nobel Prize, Bradshaw said, “the kids went berserk with happiness and were running around the lab so excited.”
Chemistry professor James Nowick said Rose attended regular department gatherings, and they became friends and research partners.
“It was a lot of fun working with him. He worked with his own hands, not relying on others, with old instrumentation and was able to do literally superb science,” Nowick said. “Mechanistic enzymologists are always really sharp folks, but Ernie was incredibly sharp. I always thought I didn’t get some of the things he was saying because I was dumb, but when he won the Nobel, I realized it was because he was incredibly smart.”
On Tuesday, Nowick said, “I just spoke with Ernie a month or so ago. He seemed in good spirits. I’m so sad to hear that he’s gone.”
Nowick recalled that on the morning Rose won the Nobel Prize, “he was hesitant to pick up the phone because he was tired of all the attention. By the end of the day, he was back in the lab running experiments, never content to bask in the glory of his accomplishments and always eager to continue making new discoveries.”
And the test-tube experiment that night in the laboratory? The results came out exactly as Rose had predicted.
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