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As pioneering molecular geneticist returns to California, he leaves legacy of accomplishment, strong foundation on which to build

San Antonio (June 5, 2003) — Wen-Hwa Lee, Ph.D., the Alice P. McDermott Distinguished University Chair at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSC), professor and chairman of the department of molecular medicine at UTHSC, director of the university's Institute of Biotechnology in the Texas Research Park, and one of the key players in San Antonio's rise in the biosciences, will depart later this summer to rejoin his family and take a position at the University of California, Irvine, the Health Science Center announced June 5. Dr. Lee will be the Bren Professor of Biomedicine in the department of biological chemistry. His wife, Eva P. Lee, Ph.D., is a Chancellor's Professor in the departments of biological chemistry and developmental and cell biology at Cal-Irvine.

"The Institute of Biotechnology has flourished under the direction of this brilliant leader, who has contributed the concept of tumor-suppressor genes to the vocabulary of modern biomedical science," said UTHSC President Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D. "We are deeply indebted to Dr. Lee for the outstanding research programs he has directed. He has brought us to this very high plateau of science through his dedication and creative experimental work."

"My entire family is in California, and at this time in my life and career that becomes exceptionally important," Dr. Lee said. "I have been privileged to lead a team that has helped bring the Health Science Center into its position as the leader of the biosciences in this community and nation. The outstanding scientists who are at the Institute of Biotechnology — and the new director who will be recruited — will continue to propel the Health Science Center to the highest levels of prominence in the scientific community. San Antonio and the Health Science Center have been wonderful to me and this has been a most difficult decision."

"As much as we hate to see Dr. Lee leave, no one understands the pull of family more than I do," Dr. Cigarroa said. "Family was the reason I left Johns Hopkins to return to South Texas. However, we are so fortunate that someone of his caliber has spent the last 12 years at the Health Science Center and has built such an internationally renowned institute."

A search committee for a successor will be appointed and an international search will be conducted to identify a new leader who will pursue Dr. Lee's legacy of extraordinary productivity and national scientific prominence. Dr. Lee came to San Antonio in the summer of 1991 to be the founding director of the Institute of Biotechnology. In 1996 he became the founding chair of the department of molecular medicine, which was one of the first molecular medicine departments in the country. Dr. Lee's research group has made significant findings related to the genetics of inherited breast cancer and a rare childhood eye cancer called retinoblastoma. The Institute of Biotechnology continues with a strong group of 13 scientists who study cell regulation, DNA repair and other topics.

San Antonio's economy historically was dependent on the military and tourism, but in the 1990s the biosciences sector became the largest in the city's economy. It now generates $11 billion a year. Leaders such as Dr. Lee fueled such success. "There is a message for all of San Antonio in this situation," Dr. Cigarroa said. "We have been accustomed to having one of the world's top scientists here, and it is imperative that we continue to recruit at this level. That takes a communitywide commitment and it takes resources — but investing in a scientific 'superstar' does pay huge dividends. Dr. Lee's program has brought more than $45 million to San Antonio and he grew the Institute of Biotechnology to more than 100 faculty and staff. In addition to making a contribution to the scientific body of knowledge, a leading researcher brings great economic impact to a community as well. We are committed to filling this important position with someone of equally outstanding credentials."

Merle S. Olson, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the Health Science Center, said Dr. Lee's enthusiasm for tackling the most complex issues related to the biology of cancer has made a substantial contribution in the understanding of the mechanisms of this disease. "We will always be indebted to him," Dr. Olson said.

Suzanne B. Sandmeyer, Ph.D., professor and chair of the department of biological chemistry at Cal-Irvine, welcomed Dr. Lee's addition. "We are looking forward to Dr. Lee joining our other cancer researchers here at UCI. He will bring particular strength in the area of understanding the process by which cells lose control of DNA repair and replication and become tumorigenic," Dr. Sandmeyer said.

Contact: Will Sansom