Sept. 29, 1994
Vol. 14, No. 3

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    Obituary: Howard Tager, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology

    Howard S. Tager, Louis Block Professor and Chairman of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and a well-known diabetes researcher, died of a heart attack at his home on Sept. 6. He was 49.

    Tager was an internationally recognized authority on the biochemical structure, action, regulation and degradation of the insulin and glucagon molecules and the interaction of these molecules with their receptors. His research, especially on the structure of the insulin molecule and on how it binds to the insulin receptor, paved the way for better understanding of the molecular basis of diabetes and of insulin therapy.

    In 1979, Tager was one of the leaders of a team that discovered the first case of diabetes that resulted from an abnormal form of insulin. His painstaking chemical analysis of minute amounts of the insulin from that patient was instrumental in locating the site of the gene mutation responsible. This unusual finding, the first specific genetic mutation linked to diabetes, stimulated Tager's interest in the relationship between the structure of the insulin molecule and its activity. By creating a series of insulin derivatives, each with a slightly different mutation, Tager was able to discover the crucial functional regions of the molecule and to begin to decipher how it worked. This research led to a better understanding of how insulin functions and to innovative ways to study the insulin molecule and the structures with which it interacts.

    "Howard was one of the key people in all of diabetes research," said Donald Steiner, the A.N. Pritzker Professor in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology. "He was very bright, imaginative, capable, productive and extremely conscientious -- traits that made him a groundbreaking researcher and a respected academic leader.

    "At the same time, he was uniformly well liked," added Steiner. "Howard was easygoing, relaxed, always helpful. Students appreciated his hands-on teaching style, his warmth and wit, and they flocked to his lab. He was also immensely helpful to new faculty with advice and guidance on organizing research projects and navigating through the maze of research funding."

    "Howard Tager was extraordinarily generous, a tremendous team player as a researcher and as an administrator," said Arthur Rubenstein, the Lowell T. Coggeshall Professor and Chairman of Medicine. "Although he never sought the limelight, he quickly built a national reputation as a scientist. Within the University, he was always willing to take on the difficult tasks, those that others were unwilling to tackle, and he completed them in such a meticulous and good-natured way that the next time a difficult task came up, we all tended to look toward him."

    Godfrey Getz, Acting Dean of the Biological Sciences Division, said Tager was "an incredible teacher who attracted many students to biochemistry and related fields. He was also a dedicated colleague, whose talents as a scientist and as a faculty member were widely appreciated. These talents made him invaluable as a department chairman, as former head of the University's Diabetes Research & Training Center and as Director of the Medical Scientist Training Program."

    A native of Los Angeles, Tager received his B.S. in 1966 from UCLA and his Ph.D. in 1971 from the University of Michigan. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship in biochemistry in Steiner's laboratory at Chicago in 1973, taught for a year at the Medical College of Ohio and then returned to Chicago in 1974 as Assistant Professor in Biochemistry.

    In 1981, he was named Associate Professor and began a five-year term as Director of the University's Diabetes Research & Training Center, one of six such centers in the country. In 1984, he was named Director of the University's Medical Scientist Training Program, which enables exceptional students to study for a combined M.D./Ph.D. degree, thereby gaining expertise in basic research as well as clinical medicine. In 1985, Tager was named Louis Block Professor in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and began a two-year term as department chairman. He began a second term as chairman in June of this year.

    Tager's work was recognized with the Lilly Award of the American Diabetes Association in 1983 and the Mary Jane Kugel Award of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation in 1985. In 1990, he was appointed to the National Diabetes Advisory Board, which assists the federal Department of Health and Human Services. He was the author or co-author of more than 125 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals, and he was a member of the editorial boards of The Journal of Biological Chemistry and The Journal of Protein Chemistry. He also served as a consultant for several biotechnology companies.

    He is survived by his brother, Robert, of Mendocino, Calif. Plans for a University memorial service are pending.