Edmond Fischer, 1920-2021: Univ. of Washington biochemist won Nobel Prize for protein research

Edmond Fischer. (Photo courtesy of Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings)

Edmond Fischer, Nobel Laureate and emeritus professor at the University of Washington biochemistry department, died peacefully in Seattle on Aug. 27 at age 101, according to the UW.

Fischer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with UW scientist Edwin Krebs in 1992 for research that illuminated a key way that regulatory proteins are controlled in cells.

Enzymes and other proteins regulate processes like cell growth and communication. But little was known about how such proteins operate when Fischer and Krebs began their work together in the 1950s.

While studying a protein that helps manage energy use in muscle cells, the pair discovered that it was turned on by the addition of a molecule called phosphate and turned off by its removal. They also identified an enzyme that spurred the process, called reversible phosphorylation.

“The original reaction we described was really embarrassingly simple, and nobody would have paid much attention to it if it had not been absolutely crucial for the regulation of cellular processes,” recalled Fischer in a video.

Their studies led to a flood of later discoveries in the field. Reversible phosphorylation activates and deactivates numerous proteins in organisms as diverse as bacteria, plants and people. And it regulates events essential for life, such as relaxation and contraction of muscles, cell division and the replication of DNA.

The findings also laid the groundwork for research that led to the development of a host of drugs. These include the anti-cancer drug Gleevec and others like it that affect protein phosphorylation.

Fischer’s early life was “clouded with uncertainties” he said in an autobiographical sketch for the Nobel Prize. He was born in Shanghai and at age seven was sent to boarding school in Switzerland overlooking Lake Geneva, with his two older brothers.

It was one of his brothers who, on the advice of his parents, got him a microscope for his 16th birthday. “It was a treasure,” he recalled at age 99, according to a UW obituary.

Fischer was initially drawn to study microbiology but turned to chemistry on the advice of a professor who told him: “Test tubes were of more use than a microscope to modern microbiologists.”

He joined the UW biochemistry department in 1956; the region’s natural beauty reminded him of Switzerland. And though he formally retired in 1990, he continued to attend UW biochemistry seminars and faculty lunches until the beginning of the pandemic.

“The beauty of science is that you always know where you start from, but you never know where you end up,” Fischer had said, according to the Nobel Foundation.

“I will remember Eddy both as a scientist and as a warm, wonderful colleague,” Trisha Davis, professor and chair of the UW Department of Biochemistry told UW Medicine. When he dropped by the department before the pandemic, “he never told the same story twice. He was a great man. We will miss him very much.”

Last year the department celebrated his 100th birthday with a series of seminars featuring scientists he mentored and influenced. He also was an accomplished pianist and recently performed Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” for an online audience of Nobel laureates and young scientists.

He is survived by two sons and a stepdaughter, and four grandchildren including Élyse Fischer, who will earn her doctorate in Cambridge, England this fall in structural biology and biochemistry.

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