Eric Shooter, founding chair of Department of Neurobiology, dies at 93

A pioneering protein chemist at Stanford, Shooter parsed the physiological roles of key brain growth factors. He also hired and nurtured young faculty who would become highly successful scientists.

- By Bruce Goldman

Eric Shooter

Eric Shooter, PhD, professor emeritus of neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine and founding chair of that department, died March 21. He was 93.

Shooter was internationally acclaimed in the field for his work on the structure and mechanisms of neurotrophins, the proteins that keep nerve cells alive. He was the first to robustly characterize the neurotrophin known as nerve growth factor, which plays a key role in regenerating lost or damaged nerve cells. The discovery could someday make it possible to regrow nerves for those who have suffered spinal cord injuries, or to reverse the nerve degeneration that leads to conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

“Eric Shooter was a leading light in the study of protein factors that support the growth and survival of nerve cells during embryonic and fetal development, and in disease,” said Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, PhD, who is also a neuroscientist. “He was also a kind and supportive mentor to generations of young neuroscientists. He will be sorely missed.”

“The neuroscience community and Stanford Medicine have lost a major contributor with the passing of Eric Shooter,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine. “His groundbreaking research paved the way for the modern-day science of nerve growth factors and the remarkable role these proteins play in sustaining nerve cells.”

Native of England

Shooter was born on April 18, 1924, in a small village north of Nottingham, England. After spending his childhood in the nearby town of Burton-on-Trent, where his family moved shortly after his birth, Shooter attended the University of Cambridge, where he studied chemistry, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1945, a master’s degree in 1946 and a PhD in 1949.

He came to the United States that year with his wife, Elaine, for a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We arrived in New York with $10 each in our pockets,” the maximum amount the British government would allow its citizens to export at that time, Shooter said in a 2002 interview. “You can do these things when you’re 24.”

At Madison, Shooter immersed himself in protein chemistry, imbibing techniques for separating large proteins. A year later, he returned to the United Kingdom to work in a British nonprofit and then to serve as a lecturer in biochemistry at University College London. There, Shooter made important discoveries about the biochemical genetics of hemoglobin.

In 1961, he was selected as a U.S. Public Health Service International Fellow with the Department of Biochemistry at Stanford’s School of Medicine. He was appointed associate professor of genetics in 1963 and, in 1968, promoted to full professor of biochemistry and of genetics. Between 1972 and 1982, he chaired the school’s doctoral program in neurosciences. In 1975, he became the founding chair of the Department of Neurobiology, a position he held through 1987.

‘The curator of my career’

Those who worked with Shooter recalled that he was a gentle, avuncular figure who never failed to treat others with warmth and generosity.

Carla Shatz, PhD, professor of biology and of neurobiology and the director of Stanford Bio-X, was one of Shooter’s early recruits to the nascent neurobiology department. “Eric hired me for my first faculty position in 1978,” she said. “As my mentor here, he taught me something important: to be gentle, to give back. His example was a reminder that you can be a great scientist and still support the careers of other young scientists. He was the curator of my career.”

Shooter also recruited William Newsome, PhD, professor of neurobiology and director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, who first arrived at Stanford in 1988. “The first time we met, he made an overwhelmingly positive impression,” Newsome said. “He was a fantastic, warm human being, as kind and considerate as a person could be.”

Elaine Shooter was the department’s financial administrator for many years, Newsome said. “Together, Eric and Elaine really built the department,” he said, adding that the pair connected on a personal level with faculty, students and postdoctoral scholars and their families.

In 1964, at the suggestion of Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg, PhD, then professor and chair of genetics, Shooter turned his attention to a newly discovered protein called nerve growth factor. Three years of intensive work resulted in myriad discoveries about this important substance, including the complex in which it’s packaged, the sites where it’s most active and how it gets there, and the workings of its receptors on nerve cells.

He also discovered the gene in mice underlying a group of diseases called the demyelinating peripheral neuropathies, in which the protective myelin covering on nerves breaks down and the nerves are unable to function properly. The diseases are similar to human neurological diseases, and the discovery laid the groundwork for understanding how nerves repair themselves.

The discovery that a neurotrophin called brain-derived neurotrophic factor enhances myelin formation took place in Shooter’s laboratory the early 2000s. He retired in 2004. In all, his career spanned well over a half-century.

Shooter was a fellow of the Royal Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among other honors, he won the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and shared the 1995 Ralph W. Gerard Prize from the Society of Neuroscience with Swiss neuroscientist Hans Thoenen, PhD. The co-author of more than 100 journal articles, Shooter served as an editor of several journals, including the Journal of Neurochemistry, Neurobiology, Journal of Biological Chemistry, Journal of Neuroscience and Neuron.

A Tareytown, New York-based biotechnology company, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, which Shooter co-founded in 1988, has met with success in the commercialization of a number of drugs. In 2014, Shooter donated $4 million from his equity holdings in Regeneron to Stanford in order to establish the Shooter Family Professorship, now held by Thomas Clandinin, PhD, professor and chair of neurobiology.

He is survived by a daughter, Annette Devost, of San Carlos, California; and two granddaughters, Michelle and Stephanie. 

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