- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
Pausing momentarily, Hammock looks into the spacious lecture hall, and quips: “How does Dr. Leal get to teach in such a lovely room?”
The students erupt with laughter.
Hammock descends the steps and heads for the podium. Leal introduces the prominent scientist, as applause fills the room.
Hammock, internationally known for his research on inhibiting a human enzyme termed Soluble Epoxide Hydrolase (sEH), an inhibitor that alleviates inflammatory and neuropathic pain in humans and companion animals, was there as a surprise guest to deliver a brief lecture on how enzymes work.
The two faculty members became friends and colleagues in 2000 when Leal joined the Department of Entomology as a professor and then served as the 2006-2008 department chair before accepting a position with the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. “I taught enzyme kinetics,” Leal said. “Bruce Hammock is an enzymologist.”
The first question that Hammock asked the class: “What's an enzyme?”
A flurry of hands responded, and the lecture began.
“You never know where your research will take you,” Hammock told them. “We first found the human enzyme studying metamorphosis in insects.”
In 1969, Hammock was researching insect developmental biology and green insecticides in the UC Berkeley lab of John Casida (1929-2018) when he and a colleague Sarjeet Gill, now a UC Riverside distinguished emeritus professor, co-discovered the target enzyme in mammals, sEH, that regulates epoxy fatty acids. This is a key enzyme involved in the metabolism of fatty acids; it regulates a new class of natural chemical mediators, which in turn regulates inflammation, blood pressure and pain.
Hammock's ensuing research, now spanning 50 years, led to the discovery that many regulatory molecules are controlled as much by degradation as biosynthesis. The epoxy fatty acids control blood pressure, fibrosis, immunity, tissue growth, depression, pain, and inflammation, "to name a few processes." A compound from his laboratory is now in human clinical trials as a non-addictive analgesic to replace opioids, and the sEH he and Gill discovered appears to be a key target to control Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, depression, and other chronic disorders of the central nervous system.
Human clinical trials are now underway through the Davis-based company, EicOsis LLC, that Hammock founded in 2011 to develop what he calls “an orally active non-addictive drug for inflammatory and neuropathic pain for humans.”
Highly celebrated for his work, Hammock is a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Inventors and the recipient of scores of scientific awards, including multiple awards from the Entomological Society of America, the American Chemical Society, and the Society of Toxicology. In 2020, Chancellor Gary May singled him out as the first recipient of the UC Davis Lifetime Achievement Award in Innovation. This award honors researchers who have made a long-term positive impact on the lives of others and who inspire other innovators.
“After having Chancellor May in my class, the bar was so high that I could only invite people of Bruce's caliber,” Leal told the students.
Leal recently quizzed his students about the identity of a peptide which proved to be GARYMAY. “Some students missed it, so I invited the Chancellor to ‘introduce himself,' Leal said. “He came to class and even gave a pop quiz.”
Leal, recipient of the 2020 Distinguished Teaching Award for Undergraduate Teaching from the UC Davis Academic Senate, and the 2022 Faculty Teaching Award from the College of Biological Sciences, said he seeks to be accommodating and innovative. “On the first day of class, a student reported positive for COVID, so I decided to stream the lecture live via ZOOM so that other students facing hardship could benefit, too. It helped during the heavy rains in January. Some students got stuck at home but did not miss class.”
“Almost every weekend, I recorded videos guiding students in their studies (Study-Guide-Weekend-Videos). I provide a ton of material for their studies outside the class. I solved problems via video (the so-called e-Solutions), I clarified topics that were not so clear to students (e-Clarifications).
“I taught how to purify proteins. Then, I asked an engineer from Genentech, Adam Lancaster, to explain how they used the techniques I described in class to produce medicine. I discussed the structures of proteins. A structural biologist, David Dranow, ‘ZOOM-bombed' to class, and we turned lemon into lemonade. He gave a pop quiz.”
When classes ended for the quarter, Leal gave a review session on Sunday. “Some students could not come, most probably because of the weather. In the end, I asked four students to recap everything which was discussed in a video we shared with the entire class (peer-generated Study Guide).”
Then Leal organized an 11th hour session, the night before the exam, to answer students' questions.
How did the final exam go? “Bruce's elegant explanation of how an enzyme works catalyzed students' understanding of enzyme kinetics,” Leal said. “What is critical in teaching goes far beyond the final, hopefully these surprises during the quarter help provide a lifetime of understanding.”
One of the questions in the final exam: “Why is vitamin C important for collagen formation?”
The lay answer is that it helps recover an enzyme. Technically, the students were to identify the enzyme as “prolyl 4-hydroxylase."
(To hear Hammock's brief lecture to the biochemistry students, access https://youtu.be/nHqWKSvmWA0.)