“Our bone is always turning over—breaking down and building back up,” says world-renowned bone biologist Steven Teitelbaum, whose research has helped cure a fatal childhood disease of the skeleton and develop treatments for others. “Studying the cell responsible for breaking down bone has provided clues for impeding the progression of bone diseases.”
Teitelbaum, The Wilma and Roswell Messing Professor of Pathology and Immunology in the School of Medicine, has been a member of the Washington University community for decades. In 1960, he set out for St. Louis from his hometown of Brooklyn, New York. “I had finished my undergraduate work at Columbia, and I thought going to WashU for medical school would be like crossing the Appalachians in a covered wagon,” he recalls. Instead he found a university “where the pursuit of excellence convinced me I wanted to be a physician-scientist.” He joined the faculty in 1969.
At the School of Medicine, Teitelbaum performed groundbreaking research on osteoclasts, the cells responsible for disassembling and digesting bone. His study of osteoclasts contributed to the first cure of osteopetrosis, in which osteoclasts break down too little bone. Inevitably, affected children die within the first decade of life due to brain compression caused by an excessively dense skull or infection due to failure to make blood cells. Teitelbaum and his team hypothesized that osteoclasts were made of cells of the bone marrow and that marrow transplants could therefore remedy the disease. By following that course of action, his team successfully treated an ostepetrotic infant—the first-ever cure. Bone marrow transplantation is now standard care for the disease.
In the years since, Teitelbaum has taken equally innovative approaches to advancing human health through modulating the activity of bone cells. His work aided in the design of drugs that decrease growth of bone metastasis in cancer patients and the successful treatment of children suffering from brittle bone disease. “Our team at Washington University contributed substantially to defining the way the cell works,” says Teitelbaum, who has published more than 300 scientific articles. “The pharmaceutical companies used these findings to produce drugs which have greatly improved the quality of life of patients with bone diseases.”
Teitelbaum’s achievements include receiving major grants from organizations such as the National Institutes of Health, as well as awards of recognition. In 2009, he received the MERIT award, one of the NIH’s most selective awards. In 2014, he received Washington University’s Carl and Gerty Cori Faculty Achievement Award. He has served as president of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
Teitelbaum says, “My career would never have been what it has had I not studied, researched, and taught at Washington University. No other peer institution has the collaborative culture of ours. It is where colleagues help each other, regardless of departmental affiliation, and relish the achievements of our trainees. It is this spirit of collaboration that has enabled the contributions of our faculty to better the lives of sick people.”