Vol 10. Issue 2 /January 18, 2010

In Memoriam:
Gary Bokoch
(1954 - 2010)

Gary Bokoch, a professor in the Department of Immunology and Microbial Science and the Department of Cell Biology at The Scripps Research Institute, died January 10, 2010 of heart failure. He was 55.

"Becoming chairman brought me into closer interactions with Gary and I'm very glad to have had the opportunity to get to know him better," said Argyrios Theofilopoulos, chair of the Department of Immunology and Microbial Science. "A shy and retiring man who was also considerate and dedicated to his work, his family, and the development of the young fellows he mentored, Gary had a very strong impact on his field, his colleagues, and this department, and we will feel his absence for a very long time."

"Gary was a valued colleague who, in the best Scripps Research tradition, worked seamlessly across departmental boundaries in pursuit of new knowledge," said Sandra Schmid, chair of the Department of Cell Biology.

Scripps Research colleague Professor Glen Nemerow added, "Gary was highly esteemed in the field. This was exemplified by the fact that he was invited to give so many seminars on his research—I'd say an average of one per month. That says a lot about him as a scientist. Gary was generous in all aspects of science, he was an exceptional mentor, and he cared greatly for his lab members. In addition, because Gary was a quiet person, many people didn't know how very beloved he was by his family and how devoted he was to them."

A Sense of Awe

Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, on April 15, 1954, Bokoch's father was a policeman and his grandfather, a coal miner. Gary Bokoch attended Pennsylvania State University, graduating with at B.S. in biology in 1976, and Vanderbilt University, graduating with a Ph.D. in Pharmacology in 1981. He conducted postdoctoral work at the University of Texas, Dallas.

He arrived at Scripps Research in 1985, where his research focused on how RhoGTPases regulate the cell cytoskeleton and help the body fight off infection.

"I'm constantly amazed by these incredibly intricate biological systems," he said in an interview for Scripps Research's Endeavor magazine in 2003. "How they evolved is just stunning to me. If you try to rationalize how things got that way, you can only come away with a sense of awe, not to mention a certain feeling of humility."

Over the past two and a half decades, Bokoch and his team uncovered how the activation of RhoGTPases triggers a host of important cell responses.

His team's work significantly contributed to the discovery of the first known function for a small RhoGTPase—regulation of the formation of toxic oxygen metabolites (oxidants) by white blood cells. Since oxidants contribute to inflammatory responses, this research raised the possibility that small RhoGTPases might someday have an impact on the treatment of inflammatory diseases including arthritis, toxic shock, atherosclerosis and myocardial infarction/reperfusion injury. Also, oxidants function as signaling molecules in non-leukocytic cells.

The Bokoch lab's extensive research covered many aspects of RhoGTPase signaling including the regulation of the cell cytoskeleton, which determines the ability of cells to move and change shape. His lab incorporated revolutionary new techniques in microscopy, and used imaging techniques in live cells to dissect the regulation of varying signaling molecules during stimulation. Using fluorescent probes to reveal regions of RhoGTPase activation in moving cells, the lab contributed to our view of how cells specifically activate RhoGTPases in a small region to enact complex changes in cell shape and motion, and how activation and inactivation of these molecules themselves can affect cell movement.

The lab's research also covered proteins that regulate RhoGTPase activity, providing new insights into both normal physiological processes and disease. The lab described a nucleotide exchange factor GEF-H1 that couples RhoGTPases to cytoskeletal dynamics. By identifying GEF-H1 as an important RhoA activator, the lab not only added significantly to the mechanics underlying cell division, but also uncovered a potentially powerful target for the next generation of cancer therapies that could interrupt the process of cell division at a key point. In addition, the group's studies of RhoGTPase regulator RhoGDI, an important family of RhoGTPase regulators, uncovered that this protein is modified by phosphorylation by PAK and Src kinases.

Bokoch and his colleagues published more than 200 articles in top journals over the course of his career.

Bokoch was a member of the editorial boards of the Journal of Leukocyte Biology, Journal of Biological Chemistry, and Molecular Pharmacology and was a member of professional societies including the Society of Leukocyte Biology, the American Heart Association, the American Association of Immunologists, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and the American Society for Cell Biology.

He is survived by his wife, Janet Nicolia, and his daughters, Jennifer and Rebecca.

A Scripps Research memorial reception will take place on Monday, January 25, 2010, from 4 to 5 PM in the Faculty Club. In lieu of flowers and food baskets, the Bokoch family requests a donation in Gary Bokoch's memory to the American Heart Association (donate.americanheart.org) or the National Kidney Foundation (www.kidney.org/support).



Send comments to: mikaono[at]scripps.edu