Wash U scientist Elson honored for research that makes heart tissue thump, molecules glow | St. Louis Public Radio

Wash U scientist Elson honored for research that makes heart tissue thump, molecules glow

Jun 6, 2013

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Part of Elliot Elson’s current research has led to the creation of artificial heart tissue that can beat on its own. Tiny pieces thump, thump, thump in petri dishes. The engineered muscles permit scientists to study the possible causes, effects and treatments of heart attacks and hypertension.

Much earlier in his career, Elson, now a scientist and professor at Washington University, worked with physicists Watt W. Webb and Douglas Magde at Cornell University to develop fluorescence correlation spectroscopy. It’s a technique using light to isolate and study the dance and shape-shifting of molecules. The technology is being used in research labs worldwide.

Nevertheless, he harbors a bit of remorse.

“My only regret is that I haven’t accomplished more,” Elson says without a trace of pretentiousness.

The swerve

Elson is the alumni endowed professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Washington University’s School of Medicine. He has authored more than 160 articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals. He has received prestigious awards for his efforts. Recently, he added the honor of being elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

But his diffidence is genuine.

Elliot Elson
Credit Gloria Ross | For the St. Louis Beacon |2013

“Elliot is really a rather humble person with all the information he’s got,” said Carl Friedan, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics whose lab adjoins Elson’s. “He knows lots of things about lots of things. He is a genius.”

Friedan says Elson “was way ahead of the curve” when he helped engineer fluorescence correlation spectroscopy (FCS) in 1972.

“He developed the theory before it was possible to do an experiment because he thought it interesting.” Friedan said. “It was an intellectual exercise.”

Elson called the work “esoteric.” It turned out to be anything but.

“I thought it was useful but that the technology was too difficult,” Elson said. “I thought only a few labs in the world could use it, so we never patented it.”

He, Webb and Magde had teamed up to study how the DNA double helix unwinds so that genes can be decoded. They looked at the helices as they spontaneously twisted and untwisted by passing a narrow laser beam through a mixture that contained a few fluorescent molecules. When the molecules entered the loosened strands of the unwinding helix, the light beam caused the molecules to glow briefly.

How the helices unwind remained a mystery, but Elson and his cohorts had succeeded in creating fluorescence correlation spectroscopy (FCS), a means of measuring molecular motion that researchers throughout the world would be able to use.

Like the poetry of the ancient Roman philosopher Lucretius, recently resurrected by Stephen Greenblatt in "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern," Elson believes that “matter is made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions.” 

“Knowing how molecules move helps to know how to control them, particularly their growth,” Elson said, navigating his way using his office blackboard to demonstrate his point.  

Much of the work done by Elson and his colleagues, including FCS, has been accomplished using instruments made in the lab that he proudly, but gingerly navigates because nearly every inch of surface is covered.

A lab member who came from Cornell with Elson, staff scientist William McConnaughey, created the cell indenter to gauge the elasticity of individual cells. He calls Elson “a great guy to work for.”

“He encourages people to do what they think is most productive,” McConnaughey said.

There’s an easy camaraderie in the lab. As Elson talks, a colleague of some 30 years, Gregory I. Goldberg, wanders in to report on the status of a malfunctioning instrument.

Goldberg, professor of dermatology and biochemistry and molecular biophysics, later offers that “a cottage industry began from (Elson’s) work. Collaborating with Elson, he said, has been a sheer pleasure: “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

The researcher

Elliot Lawrence Elson was born at Jewish Hospital, about 200 yards from his present office. His family lived a few blocks from the hospital in the Central West End. The family moved west, first to University City, then Ladue, where Elson graduated from high school. To his father’s dismay, he wanted to become a scientist.

“Dad was a cardiologist and he was expecting that I was going to become a doctor, but he gradually got used to it,” Elson said. “Mom was happy that I was doing anything I thought worth doing.”

He graduated from Harvard University in 1959 with an A.B. in biochemical science.  He began graduate work at Washington University with Arthur Kornberg, M.D., who had just won a Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his work on DNA biochemistry. When Kornberg moved to Stanford University to head the biochemistry department, Elson followed.

Elson completed his Ph.D. at Stanford University in 1966. He did post-doctoral work at the University of California-San Diego, before joining the chemistry faculty at Cornell University in 1968; he was named a full professor there in 1978.

In addition to helping to pioneer FCS at Cornell, Elson and Webb developed two other techniques for measuring motion: fluorescence photobleaching recovery and the repetitive pressure perturbation kinetics method.

After returning to Washington University in 1979, he continued his work on FCS and related technologies. He and his lab team are currently researching artificial cardiovascular tissues.

We have for some years made little bits of engineered heart tissue,” Elson said. “We take heart cells and embed them in collagen and eventually the cells start contracting like heart cells.”

The ultimate goal is to design artificial heart cells that can replace muscles permanently damaged by myocardial infarctions (heart attacks) and hypertension. Elson has no illusions of seeing a completely engineered heart in his lifetime – but he says it will happen.

In the meantime, Elson continues to do the work to which he has devoted his entire career, collecting accolades along the way.

When he received the Federal Express envelope from the arts and sciences academy, he was afraid it was another work request.

“It was a big surprise,” Elson said. “This is probably the biggest thing that can happen and a good excuse to go to Cambridge. I’m happy about it.”

The induction ceremony will be in October at the organization’s headquarters in Massachusetts.

In 2007, Elson received the Gregorio Weber Award for Excellence in Fluorescence Theory and Applications. He has served on the editorial boards of several journals, including the Journal of Cell Biology and the Biophysical Journal. He is a member of the Biophysical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

The crucible

Elson estimates that he has been married to Frances Tietov, who recently retired as principal harp from the St. Louis Symphony, for 32 years.

“We married around 1981; I know it was during Christmas break,” he chuckles, flirting with the stereotype of the absent-minded professor.

They live in University City with their cat, Guster.

His stepson Louis Woodhams, who is married to Suzanne McSwain, is an engineering student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Their younger son, Julian Elson, is working on his master’s degree at Washington University.

Elson’s younger brother, John, is a professor of law at Northwestern University in Chicago.

At 75, Elson feels he’s running out of time to do all of the things he still wants to do in the lab. Tietov has given him a deadline to retire. He’s thinking perhaps in a couple of years.

When he does retire, they may go to Italy more often or perhaps get the dog that Tietov wants, but “only if she walks it at night.”

“If I had my druthers, I’d just keep working,” Elson said. “Frances won’t let me stay here as long as I would like.”

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service