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Faculty Q&A: Paul Bertics

Editors' note: Paul J. Bertics died unexpectedly at his home in Madison on December 22, 2011. The following interview appeared in the spring 2011 issue of Quarterly magazine. Those who knew Bertics are encouraged to share their memories.


In addition to directing a rich cancer and immunology research program, Paul J. Bertics, PhD, professor of biomolecular chemistry, devotes time and energy to the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health's admissions process. Learn more about him in the following interview.


You did your undergraduate studies at UCLA. How did you end up here?


My undergraduate research advisor strongly recommended I consider UW-Madison, and many of my teaching assistants had been undergrads here and spoke of it in glowing terms. I felt I should leave UCLA to get different perspectives and experience different teaching styles. There were also lots of outdoor activities in the Midwest I had never tried. Plus, I had never seen snow!


Paul BerticsAs a graduate student at UW, what did you study?


I studied biochemical mechanisms used by the anterior pituitary and hypothalamus to metabolize steroid hormones, especially progesterone, which is important for female reproductive development. The work got me fascinated in endocrinology and the mechanisms by which hormones regulate cellular function.


Were there any practical applications to the work?


At the time, Merck was developing drugs for preventing hair loss in men, one of which became Propecia. Understanding steroid breakdown is an important consideration because certain steroids direct hair growth. I was studying the relevant enzymes in females, so we worked together to define the mechanisms by which Propecia and similar compounds regulate steroid breakdown.


How about your post-doctoral studies?


I went back to California, to UC-San Diego. I worked on epidermal growth factor (EGF), which is produced by and works on many cell types. This factor is a site of dysfunction in numerous cancers. Many anti-cancer drugs have been developed to target its action. I studied processes by which EGF regulates cell growth and proliferation. I began to get an understanding of how things could go wrong and lead to uncontrolled growth contributing to cancer.


But you came back to Wisconsin?


Yes, my wife and I had very much liked living in Wisconsin during graduate school, so when I heard about an opening here, I quickly applied. It was the first and only job for which I applied. I was exceptionally lucky to get it. I started at the medical school in 1986.


What is your home department?


It's biomolecular chemistry. It's an extremely collegial and supportive department. The faculty work generally on biochemical mechanisms underlying differing cellular processes using bacteria, yeast, frogs, mice, worms and human-derived material in the process. The department is relatively small with 14 faculty members, but many of us are in fairly significant leadership positions around campus. I am the co-leader of the Tumor Micro-Environment Group at the UW Carbone Cancer Center and chair of the SMPH Research Committee.


What's your research about generally these days?


A portion of my lab's research spins off the work I did as a post-doc at UCSD, centering on the EGF receptor. First, the research focuses on the biochemistry of EGF receptor and how it functions. Second, we study how it communicates to other systems inside the cell to regulate cell adhesion, survival, division and movement. Third, we examine the mechanisms by which naturally occurring mutations alter that behavior.


Can you give us an example?


Specific EGF mutations have been found in certain types of lung cancer and brain tumors. These mutations allow for those EGF receptors to give off inappropriate growth regulatory signals that further the development of the cancers. Clarifying how the mutations alter function is important for understanding cancer development, but can also provide insight into how you could block that behavior.


What about your immunology work?


We study mechanisms by which immune surveillance cells-macrophages and eosinophils-become responsive to signals from bacteria, viruses and parasites to elicit immune responses to fight infections. We found that ATP, which is released at the site of infection and tissue damage and even by cancers, is a very important activator of immune cells. It can contribute to the hyper-activation of the immune system that is often associated with sepsis. We're developing a model that would let ATP and other immune factors cooperate to modulate these responses.


Is there a connection to cancer?


Immunity and cancer overlap substantially-both can cause cell proliferation, and the regulation of certain macrophages to promote tissue repair can actually help tumors grow. In my own work, we found that extracellular ATP promotes macrophages to release VEGF, an agent that normally causes blood vessel development and wound repair.


Because certain cancers can release ATP and other factors that control macrophage function, the production of agents such as VEGF by the macrophage may lead to blood vessel growth to the tumor and thus maintain its growth.


Do you work with many other researchers?


Yes, work with SMPH faculty William Busse, Nizar Jarjour, Jim Gern and Deane Mosher has been instrumental in our immunology research. And a 10-year collaboration with Nicholas Abbott in the School of Engineering has been key to our EGF studies. I've also collaborated with people in the School of Veterinary Medicine and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.


Tell us about your involvement in the admissions committee.


Two years after I began teaching at the SMPH, I was asked to join the committee. I found I really enjoyed it. I served as a committee member for four years, stepped down to conduct applicant interviews for two years, became chair of the non-resident subcommittee and then was asked to chair the full committee. I've continued to serve as chair since 1999.


What do you like about it?


It's a committee that gets a lot of tangible things done each and every week. And at the end of the year, we've admitted an entire class of outstanding individuals and future leaders. Since I end up teaching these students, I can provide some insight into what strengths would be best suited for different aspects of medical training. You really get to see the breadth and depth of individuals who are interested in medicine.


How much time do you devote to admissions work?


It's about six to eight hours a week. Each committee member reviews four to six applications a week, spending about 30 to 45 minutes on each. We meet weekly as a group to discuss the applications we've reviewed. Every Friday from September to March, I also give groups of applicants an overview of the admissions process. Then we have periodic business meetings, admissions workshops, scholarship discussions and subcommittee activities that span the year. However, when you're doing something you really like, you don't notice it as work.


Do some applications blow you away?


Frequently! There are an amazing number of people out there who have done incredible combinations of things. I wouldn't want to have to compete with these individuals for medical school admission.


How do you stay active?


I love to go trout fishing in nearby streams. My wife and I canoe the Boundary Waters each summer. And I like gardening and clearing wood from the two acres of trees on our property.


Any other hobbies?


I've played guitar since high school and still do. I've also remained interested in electronics. These days, I restore tube radios from the 1920s to '50s. It's very relaxing, especially in the winter when I'm not outside as frequently. I have a collection of antique radios I'm restoring to working condition, as if they were made yesterday. It's not a business, it's just for fun. If this science thing doesn't work out, I can always fall back on refurbishing old radios.


Date Published: 05/19/2011

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Faculty Q&A: Paul Bertics

Last updated: 01/13/2012
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