The Curious Career of Dr. Evgeny Nudler

How an Insatiable Sense of Wonder Can Make Dreams Come True

A multifaceted man, Dr. Evgeny Nudler is fascinated by nitric oxide, an equally multifaceted molecule.

To attain a black belt in the Japanese martial art of Shorinji Kempo, Evgeny Nudler, PhD, the Julie Wilson Anderson Professor of Biochemistry, first had to master a rigorous repertoire of punches, kicks, and blocks, and then learned to temper these self-defensive moves with acupressure, meditation, and elements of Zen Buddhism.

Blending, juggling, integrating, diversifying—these skills seem to come naturally to this trailblazing Russian-born biochemist. “I like to have many irons in the fire,” says Dr. Nudler. Currently, he and his 12 postdoctoral fellows are conducting experiments in four major unrelated areas of research.

In September, Dr. Nudler published yet another breakthrough study in the journal Science. He and his colleagues revealed how dangerous bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus and Bacillus anthracis, the causative agent of anthrax, can thwart antibiotics. One secret to the microbes’ success, they found, is a small molecule known as nitric oxide. Originally known for its contribution to air pollution, nitric oxide has since been implicated in physiological functions such as dilating blood vessels, transmitting neurological signals, and fighting infections.

Dr. Nudler and his team have learned that the molecule plays another surprising role: detoxification of diverse antibacterial chemicals. One upshot, he explains, is that targeting nitric oxide could take out a key bacterial defense. Commercially available inhibitors of the enzyme that produces nitric oxide, for example, could provide a “shortcut” to restoring the potency of many antibiotics.

The discovery has opened other avenues of research. “We have evidence that our human cells also use nitric oxide to protect against toxic chemicals,” says Dr. Nudler. “So that means that cancer cells, which we want to kill using toxic chemicals, actually defend themselves using nitric oxide.” Blocking the chemical’s production in tumors, then, could boost the potency of chemotherapy.

A separate project under his guidance is investigating the mechanism for the critical cellular process of transcription, which creates RNA templates for protein production. His lab has discovered RNA molecules, dubbed riboswitches, that can control gene expression by directly sensing the presence of various metabolites. Another research effort is focusing on protective cell components known as heat shock proteins, and the lab has identified the main factors that spur production of these proteins in response to stress. Finally, a new project on aging, funded in part by Timur Artemyev, is examining how bacteria can affect the lifespan of the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans.

Dr. Nudler’s wide-ranging curiosity developed during his childhood in Moscow, where his father, the noted microbiologist Alexander Nudler, introduced him to microbes. After earning a PhD from Moscow’s Institute of Molecular Genetics in 1995, Dr. Nudler was invited to come to New York and join the Public Health Research Institute lab of microbiologist Alexander Goldfarb, PhD, himself a Russian émigré.

Arriving here with $100 in his pocket, Dr. Nudler joined our faculty at age 26. Ten years later, he became the youngest full professor in the School’s history and won a $2.5 million Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health.

“Dr. Nudler is among the most creative and productive scientists I know,” says Glenn Fishman, MD, the William Goldring Professor of Medicine, and director of the Leon H. Charney Division of Cardiology. “Typically, scientists develop an expertise in a rather narrow area of science. But Dr. Nudler has made important contributions in a broad range of disciplines. His work identifying a novel mechanism and potential therapy for ischemia-reperfusion injury is especially exciting for the cardiovascular field because this form of damage to heart muscle is responsible for significant morbidity and mortality.”

Dr. Nudler credits his extraordinary success, in part, to his lab personnel. “I feel so lucky to have been able to attract exceptionally talented and dedicated scientists who share my enthusiasm,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what you do. If you find it interesting and know what questions to ask, you can get very exciting results.”

 

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