On an October morning in 2004, a bleary-eyed UC Irvine chemistry professor checked to see who had won the Nobel Prize in chemistry. He found the names of a team of three scientists, including an American named Irwin Rose.
“Wait a second,” James Nowick recalled thinking. “That’s Ernie! That’s the guy I’m working with!”
Nowick called up his friend, who was relieved to find it wasn’t yet another reporter. The humble scientist simply wanted to get back to the lab, “and by the end of the day, he did,” Nowick recalled.
Rose died Tuesday in Deerfield, Mass., at the age of 88, according to UC Irvine spokeswoman Janet Wilson.
A sharp, passionate and curious enzymologist, Rose conducted his prize-winning work on how a cell gets rid of unwanted proteins. It became textbook material. But he continued to conduct experiments, publish scientific articles and pursue the intricacies of specific enzymes well into his Orange County retirement.
“By the time the Nobel Prize was awarded, he had moved on to other questions,” Nowick said. “He never dwelled on the past. He always moved on to new opportunities and new frontiers.”
Rose was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on July 16, 1926. He spent his teenage years in Spokane, Wash., hiding out in the library and reading scientific journals, according to an article in the local Spokesman-Review.
He received a doctorate in 1952 from the University of Chicago and taught biochemistry at Yale University until joining the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia in the 1960s.
At the time, little had been understood about how cells work, said Dr. Jonathan Chernoff, the center’s scientific director. Most scientists had focused on how protein was synthesized, but Rose harbored an interest in just the opposite: how protein was destroyed.
“Part of his genius was recognizing these sort of important, but offbeat, questions that other people weren’t focused on,” Chernoff said.
For about two decades, Rose made little progress. But after meeting two other researchers, Rose invited them to Fox Chase for the summer, and they brought a new technique for breaking cells open and studying them in a test tube, Chernoff said.
Rose and his colleagues succeeded in detailing the mechanism for how enzymes are involved in attaching ubiquitin to old proteins, which marks them for destruction.
The discoveries led to at least one drug already on the market, Velcade, which is now used to a treat a type of cancer called multiple myeloma.
“There are many, many more in the pipeline no doubt,” one of his research partners, Aaron Ciechanover, said by phone at a news conference following the Nobel announcement.
Cancer cells make a tremendous amount of protein. If they can’t regulate the protein disposal, then the cells die, Chernoff said. He compared the effect of too many unwanted proteins on such cancerous cells to how a clogged garbage disposal might hinder trying to wash the dishes.
Rose retired in 1997 to Laguna Woods, where he reportedly had a lab at his home, and joined the physiology and biophysics departments at UC Irvine, where he shared lab space with Ralph Bradshaw, then a professor in the department, whom he had met earlier in his career.
Rose had come by to see Bradshaw, saying that he was thinking of moving to Orange County and wondering if there might be a place he could work. Bradshaw told him of course.
But months passed with no word from his friend, until one day, “he walks into my office and says, ‘Here I am,’ “ Bradshaw recalled.
Bradshaw found a desk for him in the corner, such as a graduate student might have, where “he was as happy as he could be.”
It was back to the esoteric work to which he had devoted his career — taking single enzymes and dissecting them at the atomic level — with a brief interruption from the fanfare over a Nobel Prize.
“You get so much attention and notoriety,” Rose said about the award in a 2005 interview at UC Irvine. “It’s been different. I’ve been able to do some work, but not as much as I’d like to.”
Rose is survived by his wife, Zelda; sons Frederic, Robert and Howard; a brother and five grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his daughter Sarah.