Prof. Elaine Fuchs

How do the stem cells of our body keep rejuvenating and repairing our tissues throughout our lives and how do they cope with environmental stresses, including aging, inflammation and cancer? Using skin as a model, Prof. Elaine Fuchs has been striving to answer these questions for over four decades, creating a body of knowledge that has enriched the global scientific community, while generating an extensive list of professional and personal accolades. These include being awarded the American National Medal of Science by President Barack Obama in 2008, serving as one of Pope Francis’ consultants on stem cell research at the Vatican since 2018 and receiving the 2020 Canadian Gairdner International Award, to name a few.

After completing her PhD in biochemistry at Princeton University, Prof. Fuchs pursued postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and served on the faculty at the University of Chicago before joining Rockefeller University in New York, where she holds the Rebecca C. Lancefield Professorial Chair. Fascinated by the diversity of cellular populations in the skin, she embraced recombinant DNA technology early on, using it in her successful hunt for genes responsible for human skin disorders. In subsequent investigations of how tissue stem cells make and repair the skin, she showed how communication between stem cells and their neighbors, particularly immune cells, can become altered, causing the stem cells’ proliferation to either accelerate (in the case of inflammation) or slow down (as occurs during aging).

Her recent work showed that stem cells of the skin are able to store long-term memories of their previous experiences, analogous to what happens in the brain. These memories endow the skin with the ability to heal wounds faster upon the next encounter and display broader resistance against pathogens. However, they also confer heightened sensitivity to inflammation, a feature often associated with cancers. Prof. Fuchs’ studies showing how cancer cells hijack the mechanisms that enable stem cells to replenish dying cells and repair wounds may lead to new therapeutic approaches that target cancerous stem cells without affecting tissue stem cells.

A dear friend of the local scientific community, Prof. Fuchs frequently visits Israel and has trained postdocs who went on to head their own labs. These include Dr. Shiri Gur-Cohen, a Weizmann-trained stem cell investigator who did postdoctoral research in the Fuchs lab at Rockefeller and discovered a new skin stem cell niche in the lymphatics, a breakthrough study that was published in the high-profile journal Science.

Through her research, Prof. Fuchs has helped us understand how stem cells respond to stress and maintain a healthy barrier between our body and the outside world. Her discoveries offer new avenues for exploring improved clinical treatment for disorders related to tissue regeneration and to aging.