Bruce Walcheck: Unlocking the Mysteries of ADAM 17

December 20, 2016

By Frank Jossi

That Bruce Walcheck ended up as a university professor seems both inevitable and not at all likely. Growing up in Montana he saw the delight in science his father took as a faculty member at Northern Montana College and later as a staff member of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in eastern Montana.

Motivated by the sciences as a high school student, Walcheck went off to Montana State University, where he earned a Bachelor’s of science degree in microbiology and a Ph.D. in immunology. “I had an affinity for science but I didn’t have an initial interest in being a college professor,” he confessed, “and writing grants didn’t sound appealing.”

And yet Walcheck, 48, is a college professor, after all. Despite his apprehension, he had a taste of working at a large pharmaceutical company and found the work stimulating but disheartening. He worked for three years on disease research and “it went really well,” Walcheck said.

While the experience allowed him to “develop expertise,” the company’s periodic restructuring hindered long term research goals. Looking for a new challenge, Walcheck accepted a faculty position in 1997 in the College’s Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences department, where he could pursue his research on ADAM 17.

ADAM stands for “a disintegrin and metalloprotease” and ADAM 17 is an important enzyme in the large family of ADAM proteins. ADAM 17 is a key regulator of many biologic processes, among them muscle development, fertilization and neurogenesis. It has also been implicated in inflammatory diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease, and cancer.

ADAM 17 basically works like a “pair of scissors that sits in the membrane of the cell surface,” he said. The enzyme frees biologically-active proteins that are tethered to the membrane. The liberated proteins go on to affect, among other things, the immune system and promote inflammation. “If ADAM17’s activity is too high, this will eventually lead to disease,” Walcheck said. “But if the enzyme can be regulated, the incidence of diseases associated with inflammation and cancer could be reduced.” 

Walcheck’s laboratory has made several groundbreaking discoveries about the function and regulation of ADAM 17. His laboratory uses "gene knock down" approaches that offer researchers genetically modified cells or mice that do not express ADAM 17.

His studies extend to the enzyme’s impact on lung infection, on immunosuppression in sepsis, and on various types of cancer. “If we can understand how ADAM 17 functions, we can know when it’s working properly and when it’s not working properly and then regulate it,” Walcheck said.

While he spends plenty of time working on ADAM 17 it’s not Walcheck’s only priority. For five years, the professor has stimulated an appreciation among students for research in the Veterinary Summer Scholars Program in Comparative Medicine. It’s a fun way to share his knowledge with the next generation, he said.

Despite the complexity of his work, Walcheck’s greatest love is for his two teenage daughters and his wife, a dietitian and diabetes educator with Allina. “When I think about my legacy,” he says, “I feel it will be through my kids. But I certainly feel our research matters. We're part of a group of international scholars and researchers that are improving our understanding of the immune system to eventually improve human and animal health.”