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Eli Sercarz dies at 75; UCLA scientist made key discoveries in immunology

Sercarz studied the concepts behind autoimmune diseases.

November 21, 2009|Thomas H. Maugh II
  • UCLA
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Eli E. Sercarz, who explored the mechanisms of autoimmunity and developed key concepts about how the body's immune system attacks its own tissues, died of renal cell cancer Nov. 3 in Topanga. He was 75.

"Eli Sercarz was one of the most highly esteemed immunologists in the world," said Dr. Jonathan Braun, chairman of the department of pathology and laboratory medicine at UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine, where Sercarz spent most of his career. "Few men can claim such a huge legacy of scientific achievement; fewer still will be so widely remembered and missed."

Sercarz explored the tangle of proteins and sugar molecules on the surface of cells that are recognized by the immune system. Typically, only the very outermost regions of these tangles, called determinants, are recognized by immune cells. As a young infant develops, his or her T cells grow up in the presence of these determinants and come to recognize them as "self," a process called tolerance. The immune cells do not attack cells they recognize as self.

But Sercarz discovered that there are buried regions of surface proteins, called cryptic determinants, that can trigger an immune response if they are exposed. A viral or bacterial attack can, in a susceptible individual, expose these cryptic determinants, triggering an autoimmune attack such as that found in lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and diabetes.

He also discovered the phenomenon known as determinant spreading, in which white blood cells that begin the autoimmune reaction recruit other white cells to join in and also attack cells to expose other cryptic determinants, strengthening the immune attack and making the disease more severe.

"This concept, which had originally been proposed by Sercarz and colleagues, represents today the major hypothesis for the pathogenesis of autoimmune diseases," noted Italian immunologist Antonio Lanzavecchia wrote.

Eli Sercarz was born Feb. 14, 1934, in the Bronx to Polish immigrants. His father was a radiation technologist, his mother a teacher of Yiddish. As a youth, he suffered rheumatic fever twice. To help him recover, his mother -- a vegetarian and a strong health proponent -- took him to the Rancho La Puerta spa in Tecate, Mexico, to recover. The spa, run by a Hungarian, Dr. Edmond Szekely, offered a special diet of grapes and yogurt, along with walking exercises.

Eli's mother, Aida, worked as a secretary at the spa in exchange for his board. Young Eli would ride his bike across the border every day to attend Mountain Empire High School in San Diego County. After his recovery, he persuaded his mother to allow him to remain there alone to finish high school, where he became valedictorian.

Sercarz earned his doctorate in immunology at Harvard in 1960, and he did postdoctoral research at Harvard and MIT before joining the staff of UCLA in 1963. Eventually, he rose to the prestigious rank of "professor above scale," which is reserved for those who have made novel and important contributions in their fields.

As he reached retirement age, he concluded that his UCLA laboratory was becoming outdated. To solve the problem, in 1997 he took a post at the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology, where he built a new lab. After five years, he moved his lab and his colleagues to the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies in San Diego. He was still working on manuscripts and overseeing research at the time of his death.

A high-spirited man, Sercarz would often break into spontaneous dances, cajoling his colleagues to join in festive celebrations of one thing or another. He considered himself a connoisseur of exotic and pungent cheeses, which he brought home in his suitcase from visits abroad. Occasionally, the luggage would go astray, becoming quite ripe by the time it was retrieved, colleagues said.

Sercarz is survived by his second wife, Rabyn Blake, an environmentalist and artist; a son, Joel of Santa Monica; two daughters, Lisa Kern of Santa Rosa and Sarayana Celada of Los Angeles; and two stepsons, Charles and Andrew Sheldon of Topanga.

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