Nobel winner in medicine to lead Dallas project

DALLAS (AP) — As head of a new research center at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Dr. Bruce Beutler is looking forward to bringing together some of the world's best minds to solve problems in the field of immunology.

Beutler, 53, who was one of three scientists chosen Monday to receive the Nobel Prize for discoveries about the body's disease-fighting immune system, was named the founding director of the Center for the Genetics of Host Defense at UT Southwestern on Sept. 1.

"I feel so grateful to all of you and I'm so happy to be back here," he told a standing-room-only crowd in a campus auditorium Tuesday.

Beutler holds dual appointments at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., where he is chairman of the genetics department. Although he is splitting his time between both institutions -- completing his work in California as he starts the new lab in Texas, he said he plans to be in Dallas full-time in November.

"The thought of assembling a collection of investigators with like-minded interests" intrigued him, he said. "When the opportunity came up, I jumped at the chance."

Dr. Gregory Fitz, executive vice president for academic affairs, provost and dean of UT Southwestern, said the idea for the center was born 18 months ago when a group of faculty leaders approached him. They said the school needed to make an even stronger commitment to exploring immunology given its importance in so many aspects of medicine, including viral infections, cancer and autoimmune diseases.

Dr. Eugene Frenkel, professor of internal medicine and radiology, suggested that Beutler might be the ideal leader of such a center "because of his incredible talent."

Beutler, a modest man, has long been acknowledged for his great work in "a whole area of immunology that has been overlooked," Frenkel said.

The Dallas medical school's timing couldn't have been better. Last week, Beautler was in Hong Kong, where he received the Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine with two other scientists.

Beutler said the most hopeful applications for his research are in treating inflammatory and auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

He will actively recruit new faculty members to join him in research as they build "a bigger and better program" at UT Southwestern, Fitz said.

The school anticipates spending about $20 million over the next 10 years to support the center with funding from private donors, grants and the UT System's STARS program — designed to attract and retain top faculty.

Beutler, named a regental professor of the UT System Tuesday, started his scientific career at UT Southwestern and served on the faculty from 1986 to 2000, making his seminal discoveries then.

On Tuesday, he recalled "learning the meaning of hard work" on the campus, where he was an internal medicine intern and then a neurology resident after medical school at the University of Chicago. He said he spent days working 24- and 36-hour shifts and even longer without leaving the Dallas hospital.

Beutler said he went to medical school "to really learn about the process of disease, to understand what the big problems were out there. And I most certainly did."

After postgraduate training at UT Southwestern, Beutler completed a two-year fellowship at Rockefeller University.

It was there that he first met Canadian-born Ralph Steinman, who was to have shared the prize along with Beutler and French scientist Jules Hoffmann, 70.

"I admired him a great deal from the start," Beautler said of Steinman. "He was a great scientist."

Steinman, 68, a pioneer in understanding how the cells of the body fight disease, died of pancreatic cancer Friday.

"I was really very sad," Beutler said. "I think it's a tragedy that he came within three days of knowing that he had won the Nobel Prize."

Beautler, the son of a scientist, went off to college at age 16 and graduated two years later from the University of California, San Diego. He said he hurried because he was eager to focus solely on science and biomedical research.

"In a way college was a little like an impediment to me and I just wanted to get through it so I could really have a lab of my own," he told The Associated Press.

Beutler is the fifth Nobel laureate on the faculty at UT Southwestern.


Associated Press Writer Danny Robbins contributed to this report.

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