Most of us hardly pay attention to the many little nicks and scratches we sustain in the course of daily living. Even when they draw a little blood, we assume these wounds will heal automatically, and most often we never give them another thought. However, those with blood-clotting disorders--hemophiliacs, for example--do not have the luxury of taking for granted the complex cascade of events that lead to blood coagulation. Thanks to the efforts of UW biochemist Earl W. Davie, we now understand the molecular processes that provide this essential property of our blood.
Davie's attempts to find out how the body stops blood loss after an injury led first to landmark discoveries about blood clotting. Later he developed original genetic engineering techniques to create in the laboratory the chemicals necessary for blood coagulation and for dissolving clots. The techniques he pioneered are now used widely in diverse applications of genetic engineering.
Not only was Davie among the first to describe how proteins in the plasma coagulate blood, he and his colleagues were among the first to locate, splice, and clone the genes that make most of these proteins. His lab has isolated more than 30 different genes responsible for producing clot-building substances.
Working with these genes provided valuable insights into inherited disorders in which the blood doesn't readily clot, as well as conditions in which the blood clots too easily and thereby blocks blood vessels, leading to heart attacks and strokes. His work not only illuminated the causes, but also paved the way for treatments for these diseases. Genetically engineered products are now available to treat the symptoms of some of these clotting disorders.
His work was one of the starting points for what has become a major thrust of research and industrial enterprise: the use of recombinant DNA to study the action of genes and to manufacture useful biological or therapeutic products. A spin-off of Davie's work was the foundation of one of the earliest biotechnology companies in the Seattle area, now known as ZymoGenetics. In recognition of Davie's role in fostering the beginnings of the biotechnology industry in this area, ZymoGenetics endowed a chair in biochemistry in his name in 1993.
Davie's career is the story of a home-grown success. Born in Tacoma in 1927, Davie attended the UW, where he received a bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1950. Four years later he earned a Ph.D. from the UW in biochemistry, then went off to Boston for postdoctoral training. From 1956 to 1962 he served on the faculty of the biochemistry department at what was then Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and then returned to the UW. In 1975 he was appointed chairman of the UW department of biochemistry, a position he held until 1984.
Explorations in the Davie laboratory continue on the topic of clot formation and disintegration. Researchers there are studying the formation of fibrin, the insoluble protein fundamental to the clotting of blood, and are probing how enzymes break up this tough plug once the body's tissues have been repaired. They are tracing the synthesis of blood coagulation proteins in the liver and their subsequent secretion into the blood stream. And they are pinpointing the locations of abnormalities in DNA to understand how these errors relate to deficiencies in production of proteins critical to blood coagulation.