Jan-Åke Gustafsson

Welch Chair in Chemistry
University of Houston

Jan-Åke Gustafsson’s research has long focused on understanding how nuclear receptors regulate gene expression. Present in almost all tissues, these proteins regulate transcription by binding hormones or other molecules, and play important roles in both normal physiology and abnormal conditions such as cancer. He is particularly interested in steroid hormone receptors, such as estrogen receptors.

A leader in this field since the early 1970s, the Swedish scientist moved to Texas in 2009 as the founding director of UH’s Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling. Among his key contributions are detailing receptors’ DNA-binding mechanisms and the discovery of a second estrogen receptor, called estrogen receptor beta, in 1996 (the alpha receptor had long been identified). While interdependent, estrogen’s two receptors function very differently: the estrogen receptor alpha enhances cell division and growth – an issue in breast and uterine cancer – while the beta receptor is anti-proliferative.

Using mouse models to study the two receptors separately, Dr. Gustafsson’s lab has shown that estrogen receptor beta may be particularly effective in counteracting certain cancers, including prostate and lung. He is working to map these reactions to create the basis for new drugs. His current goal is to convince clinicians and pharmaceutical companies that receptor-activation drugs may be a promising new treatment avenue and move the research from the lab into human trials.