SEARCH

SEARCH BY CITATION

inline image

The aging research community – indeed, the world community of basic biomedical researchers – lost an extraordinary member in late August 2010. Estela Medrano died in an automobile accident while returning home from the Biology of Aging Gordon Conference in Europe. Her tragic and unexpected death has left a hole in many important fields, including aging research. Her death has also left a hole in many lives – her family, of course, but also a host of friends, colleagues and young scientists who benefited from her mentorship. She was loved and respected by everyone whose life she touched.

Estela was born in Argentina, where she received her early education and earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry in the laboratory of Jose Mordoh at the University of Buenos Aires. Her dissertation research focused onthe biosynthesis of phosphatidyl-dCMP, then a relatively newly described precursor to membrane phospholipids. Estela’s doctoral research solidified for her a pattern that marked the remainder of her scientific life – a never-jaded wonder about the complexities of biological systems, a sensitive passion for understanding those complexities, and a remarkable intuition about the behavior of cells. During her years as a student, Estela also mastered that most distinguished of arts – juggling the demands of research with the care and feeding of (eventually) four young children!

Following her doctoral studies, Estela, together with her husband and children, traveled to the US, settling in Boston. There, Estela received postdoctoral training at the Dana Farber Institute under the mentorship of Arthur Pardee, a pioneer in many fields, but at the time immersed in understanding cell cycle regulation in normal and transformed cells. In Pardee’s laboratory, Estela’s skills in cell biology blossomed. She made several important discoveries regarding the mechanisms by which cancer cells fail to heed signals that restrain the growth of normal cells. Those who remember her from that time recall Estela, peering into a microscope, getting a ‘feel’ for her cells, which she then coaxed into revealing their secrets.

Estela and her family returned to Argentina, where she established herself as an independent investigator at the prestigious Fundacion Instituto Leloir in Buenos Aires. Her laboratory continued to study mechanisms of growth control in normal and transformed cells, focusing primarily on breast epithelial cells. And Estela established herself as a gifted cell biologist, despite the worsening economic difficulties faced by Argentina at that time.

When Estela’s husband, Jorge, was offered a job in the US (Dayton), Estela followed and was soon recruited to the Department of Dermatology at the University of Cincinnati Medical School. There, she embraced a new area of cell biology to better complement the focus of her new Department. Her work in this area – the biology of melanocytes and melanoma – earned her an international reputation. Among her seminal contributions were establishing conditions to culture normal human melanocytes from adult skin – then a holy grail in the field. She was among the first to recognize the unique properties of melanocytes, and her laboratory identified key events in their conversion to melanoma. She embraced molecular techniques to understand the relationships among melanocyte growth, differentiation, pigment production and transformation, and her work provided important insights into all these areas.

In the early 1990s, Estela also became interested in the role of replicative immortality in melanoma progression, and the mechanisms by which normal melanocytes became senescent. Enter Estela into the field of aging research! True to form, Estela did pioneering work in the field of melanocyte senescence and skin aging. It was not surprising, then, that she was recruited to prestigious aging center – the Huffington Center on Aging at Baylor College of Medicine – in the late 1990s. At Baylor, Estela’s research at the interface of aging and cancer flourished. Her laboratory discovered the essential mechanisms by which the SKI oncoprotein drives melanoma progression, and defined the critical roles of cyclins, cyclin-dependent kinases and cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitors in the senescence of melanocytes. And nearly decade ago, Estela was among the first investigators in aging research to recognize the importance of epigenetic gene regulation in driving cellular senescence, aging phenotypes and cancer. Her seminal work on the role of histone acetylases and deacetylases in melanocyte senescence and transformation provoked excitement and recognition from diverse scientific research communities.

Consistent with Estela’s deep sense of responsibility and fairness, she was exceedingly generous with her time and expertise, accommodating whenever possible requests for her services on committees, review panels and editorial boards. She directed an National Institutes of Health training grant at Baylor, where she trained and advised numerous students and postdoctoral fellows. She served on the editorial boards of several journals, including Aging Cell, as well as the Journals of Gerontology, Journal of Investigative Dermatology and Pigment Cell and Melanoma Research. She guest edited a highly acclaimed ‘Special Issue on Epigenetic Mechanisms of Aging and Age-related Disease’ in Experimental Gerontology. She also chaired or organized many symposia at major meetings, including annual meetings of the Gerontological Society of America, International Pigment Cell Conferences, Gordon Research Conferences on the Biology of Aging, and special conferences on melanocyte biology and melanoma. She also served on countless review panels, most recently as member of the NIH Cellular Mechanisms in Aging and Development study section. As the many colleagues who had the pleasure of working with her knew, Estela worked tirelessly, reliably – and always with grace.

Throughout her career, Estela set three priorities from which she never wavered: a passion for curiosity, truth and rigor in her research; a nurturing devotion to her students, fellows, and younger colleagues; and unwavering support to her friends and colleagues. Her intelligence, warmth, and graciousness permeated every facet of her professional and personal life. Yet – despite Estela’s gentle and open personality – her strength of character was never far from the surface. For the many young scientists she trained, the many colleagues whose lives she touched, and many of us who had the privilege of her friendship, Estela’s death leaves an unfilled hole – in our lives and our science.