A Celebration of Eric Davidson

Our scientific advisor, Professor Eric Davidson, passed away on September 1st last year. To celebrate his life, Caltech hosted a whole-day symposium on Friday, April 15, 2016. After the symposium, we shared the memories to honor him in “Remembrances”. Among the people who spoke were professors, editors, administrators, rug salesman, former college football players, students……The following piece is based on what I said behind the microphone:

Most of you probably don’t know me. My name is Yong Zhu, and I am the co-founder of Vivoscript, a small biotechnology company located in Orange County. Our company was founded in 2009 to develop an innovative technology platform — treating human diseases by changing cell fates or reprogramming cells using protein drugs.

Before I knew Eric, I read his book first — “The Regulatory Genome: Gene Regulatory Networks in Development and Evolution”. The time was 2010, when my wife and two kids spent the summer in China. During that summer, I equally split my spare time between two activities: watching the FIFA World Cup and reading the book. Surprisingly, I found myself having more fun doing the latter.

I still remember the excitement while consuming the book line by line, figure by figure. We had been looking for the underlying mechanism of cell reprogramming. Why a liver cell is a liver cell, instead of a pancreatic beta cell? Why a cell can change its fate under certain conditions? Can we methodically manipulate the cell fate? While reading the book, it struck me that the answers to these questions all point to the gene regulatory networks (GRN).

On April 14, 2011, almost exactly five years ago, I worked up the courage to email Eric. His response was quick and passionate.

On the afternoon of May 5, I walked into Eric’s office with his book and met Eric and Isabelle (Peter) for the first time. We started a long-term collaboration relationship and they became our scientific advisors. On that afternoon he also signed the book for me.

From time to time we spent hours talking about science. The GRN theory not only is instrumental in animal evolution and development, but also can have practical use in guiding cell reprogramming. By studying the topology of the GRN map of a cell, for example a pancreatic beta cell, we can identify the core circuitry and the key transcription factors. By introducing several key transcription factor proteins into a liver cell, we can convert it to a pancreatic beta cell to treat diabetes. This is just one example of applying Eric’s GRN theory and principles to solving the real world problems.

I miss Eric. I miss the hours of discussion with him. I have been deeply influenced by his passion for science, his drive, and his work ethics, and occasionally “traumatized” by his intensity and brutal honesty. From time to time, his words echo in my head: “Let’s get the science solid first!” For that, I am forever grateful to him.