Gerald R. Crabtree is the David Korn Professor at Stanford University and an Investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He is known for defining the Ca2+-calcineurin-NFAT signaling pathway, pioneering the development of synthetic ligands for regulation of biologic processes and discovering chromatin regulatory mechanisms involved in cancer and brain development. He is a founder of Ariad Pharmaceuticals, Amplyx Pharmaceuticals, and Foghorn Therapeutics.
Education and training
Crabtree grew up near Wellsburg, West Virginia, earned his B.S. in Chemistry and Mathematics from West Liberty State College and his M.D. from Temple University. While at medical school, he became interested in laboratory research and started to work at Dartmouth College with Allan Munck on the biochemistry of steroid hormones.
Key discoveries 1980s and 1990s
In the early 1980s Crabtree worked with Albert J. Fornace Jr. to use early bioinformatics approaches to identify remnants of transposition events (rearrangements) in the human genome and to discover the HNF1 transcription factor. In 1982 Crabtree discovered that one gene could produce more than one protein thereby demonstrating that the coding capability of the genome is larger than expected and breaking the long-held dictum: “one gene; one protein”. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Crabtree, along with Stuart Schreiber defined the Ca2+/calcineurin/ NFAT signaling pathway, which carries signals from the cell surface to the nucleus to activate immune response genes. These discoveries resulted in the first understanding of the mechanism of action of the two most commonly used immunosuppressant drugs: cyclosporin and FK506. Crabtree and Schreiber found that these drugs prevent signals originating at the cell membrane from entering the nucleus by blocking the actions of the phosphatase, calcineurin preventing the entry of the NFATc proteins into the nucleus. NFAT proteins activate a large group of genes necessary for the immune response. When these genes are not activated, as occurs with Cyclosporin or FK506 administration, transplant rejection is prevented. The elucidation of the Ca2+ - Calcineurin-NFAT signaling pathway and the discovery that it is the target of Cyclosporin and FK506 was covered in the New York Times. Later his laboratory used genetic approaches in mice to show that calcineurin-NFAT signaling plays essential roles in the development of many vertebrate organ systems and its dysregulation is likely to be responsible for many of the phenotypes of Down Syndrome. The understanding of this signaling pathway provided one of the first biochemical bridges from the cell membrane to the nucleus. (see also: Stuart Schreiber).
In 1992, working with Calvin Kuo, then a graduate student in his laboratory, he discovered that the immunosuppressive drug, rapamycin blocked a biochemical pathway leading to protein synthesis in response to membrane cell proliferation signals. This work contributed to the development of rapamycin as a therapeutic for certain human cancers and also played a role in the founding of Ariad Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In 1993 Crabtree and Stuart Schreiber designed and synthesized the first synthetic ligands to induce proximity of proteins within cells. Crabtree generalized this approach to other types of synthetic ligands including natural molecules involved in plant signaling that have expanded the usefulness of this approach. At present synthetic ligands are being used to probe the function of many signaling pathways and biologic events within cells including receptor action, G-protein activation, non-receptor tyrosine kinase activation, protein stability, apoptotic signaling, transcription, and chromatin regulation. This approach has proved useful in rapidly activating and inactivating molecules to allow one to study their function. Crabtree and colleagues Nathan Hathaway and Oli Bell have used this approach to make the first measurements of the dynamics of chromatin regulation in living cells leading to an understanding of the stability of epigenetic changes involved in cellular memory. His development of synthetic ligands was covered in the New York Times and also in Discovery Magazine in 1996. Later, Ariad Pharmaceuticals developed this technology for gene therapy and Bellicum Pharmaceuticals was founded on this technology by Crabtree’s former post doctoral fellow, David Spencer.
In the early 1990s Crabtree worked with Paul Khavari, now the Carl J. Herzog Professor of Medicine at Stanford University, to define the mammalian SWI/SNF or BAF complex by purifying and cloning the genes that encode its subunits. Using biochemical and genetic approaches he discovered that the genes that encode its subunits are put together like letters in a word to give a wide variety of different biological meanings. In 2009 he worked with post doctoral fellow, Andrew Yoo to discover a genetic circuitry controlling the assembly of specialized, brain-specific chromatin regulatory complexes necessary for the development of the mammalian nervous system and demonstrated that recapitulating this circuitry in mammalian cells converts human skin cells to neurons.
Crabtree, with graduate student Cigall Kadoch (now at Harvard Medical School) completed the characterization of the subunits of BAF (mSWI/SNF) chromatin remodeling complexes, and found that these complexes contribute to the cause of over 20% of human cancers and can act as either oncogenes or tumor suppressors, potentially opening a new avenue for treatment.
- NIH Director’s Award, 1984
- Warner Lambert Park Davis Award, 1986
- Howard Hughes Investigator, 1988 to present
- Elected to the National Academy of Sciences, 1997
- Outstanding Inventor, Stanford University, 2004
- Thomas Scientific Laureate in Chemistry with Stuart Schreiber, 2006
- Stanford Faculty Mentor of the Year for 2008
- David Korn Professorship, 2008
- Jacob Javits Neuroscience Award, 2013
Notable students and their current affiliation
- Jorge Plutzky, Harvard University
- Nikki Holbrook, Yale University
- Katharine Ullman, University of Utah
- Albert Fornace, Georgetown University
- Calvin Kuo, Stanford University
- Paul Khavari, Stanford University
- Weidong Wang, National Institutes of Health
- Keji Zhao, National Institutes of Health
- Isabella Graef, Stanford University
- Oliver Rando, University of Massachusetts
- Paul J. Utz, Stanford University
- C.P. Chang, Indiana University
- Monte Winslow, Stanford University
- Jason Gestwicki, University of California, San Francisco
- Joe Arron, Genentech
- Julie Lessard, University of Montreal
- Jiang Wu, The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
- Andrew Yoo, Washington University
- Nate Hathaway, University of North Carolina
- Oliver Bell, Research Institute of Molecular Pathology, Vienna
- Diana Hargreaves, Salk Institute for Biological Studies
- Emily Dykhuizen, Purdue University
- Cigall Kadoch, Harvard University
- Andrew Koh, University of Chicago
- Simon Braun, University of Geneva, Switzerland