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UCLA's Birnbaumer Named NIEHS Scientific Director

Biochemist Lutz Birnbaumer, a pioneer in the discovery of how the body's cells communicate with each other to regulate organ and muscle function, has been named scientific director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

"Internationally well known and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Birnbaumer will further enhance the outstanding programs developed under the leadership of Dr. Carl Barrett," said NIEHS director Dr. Kenneth Olden. "Under Lutz's guidance, I am confident that our commitment and pursuit of excellence will continue. He is just the right person to 're-stock' the institute with the kind of scientific talent needed to be competitive in the present scientific climate. Dr. Birnbaumer has the right combination of vision, intellect and administrative skills needed to move NIEHS to the head of the class."

Birnbaumer is professor and chair of the University of California, Los Angeles' department of molecular, cell and developmental biology, professor of anesthesiology and biological chemistry, and a full member of UCLA's Institute of Molecular Biology, Brain Research Institute and Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Dr. Lutz Birnbaumer

He was a postdoctoral fellow under a former NIEHS scientific director, Dr. Martin Rodbell, when both were at the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases. Under Rodbell's direction, the young Birnbaumer carried out many of the experiments on cell communication that brought Rodbell the 1994 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology.

An author of 250 research articles, Birnbaumer has been a member of the NIEHS board of scientific councilors, which peer reviews the institute's intramural science. He has also had associations with the Salk Institute, the American Heart Association and the Pew Charitable Trusts. He has taught graduate courses in cell biology in Belgium, Argentina and Sweden and has been a visiting professor at nearly 60 teaching institutions, including the Cleveland Clinic, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Harvard University, Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Duke and UNC are located near the NIEHS' laboratories, which are in Research Triangle Park, N.C., and have several cooperative programs with NIEHS.

Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1939, Birnbaumer went to primary and secondary schools in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where his father, an engineer, and mother had fled under threat of deportation from Austria to the Soviet Union by the occupying Soviet forces. He studied biochemistry at the University of Buenos Aires, where he was awarded his master's degree and doctorate. He speaks English, German and Spanish, and reads French and Italian.

"Early on, as a fellow in Martin Rodbell's laboratory, I found that the hormones that stimulate the enzyme adenyl cyclase interacted with receptors that required GTP, a cellular metabolite, to function. Subsequent work from many laboratories, including my own, showed this 'GTP-dependent' step to be due to regulation of a separate group of proteins, now called G proteins."

What does this mean to non-scientists? Birnbaumer answered, "Signaling through G proteins regulates such cellular functions as odor, taste and light perception. It regulates liver, fat and kidney function. It regulates muscle contraction and nerve cell activity."

Birnbaumer's laboratory has continued to discover cellular signaling processes, sometimes using genetically modified mice.

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