Rudolph E. Tanzi

Born: September 18, 1958 | Providence, RI, US

Rudolph E. Tanzi was born near Providence, Rhode Island. His parents wanted him to be a doctor. In spite of his preference for music, he studied microbiology at the University of Rochester. After college he became a technician for James Gusella at Massachusetts General Hospital, helping to identify the Huntington’s chorea gene.  Tired of genetics, he next applied to Harvard to study neuroscience.  Work on the chromosome implicated in Down syndrome led him to investigate Alzheimer’s disease.  He cloned and characterized the amyloid protein precursor gene.  He has progressed from assistant professor at Harvard to full professor and is the director of the genetics and aging unit at Massachusetts General Hospital.  He continues to study the role of alpha-2 macroglobulin (A2M) in Alzheimer’s disease.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0503
No. of pages: 128
Minutes: 100

Interview Sessions

Andrea R. Maestrejuan
16-18 and 24 November 1998
Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts

Abstract of Interview

Rudolph E. Tanzi was born in Cranston, a suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, to parents of Italian descent.  His father, until he suffered a fatal heart attack in his forties, was a baker in a family–run bakery in an Italian American community, and his mother started her own medical transcription business, in which Tanzi’s twin sister, older by five minutes, also worked.  Always interested in music, Tanzi began playing the accordion at a young age but soon switched to organ.  He continued to play, even playing with some famous rock bands when he was a teenager, and now extemporizes his own music. His parents wanted him to be a doctor, and he always understood that he would go to college, in spite of his preference for music.  Luckily, he was also interested in the history of science; in high school he entered and won a number of important science competitions.  He became interested in microbiology, in which he majored at the University of Rochester.  In college he entered the Harry Tabor lab, from the beginning preferring research to medicine. After college he became a technician for James Gusella at Massachusetts General Hospital, helping to identify the Huntington’s chorea gene.  He stayed there for four years, continuing at night to play “gigs” with his band.  Somewhat tired of genetics, he applied to Harvard to study neuroscience.  Work on the chromosome implicated in Down syndrome led him to investigate Alzheimer’s disease.  He cloned and characterized the amyloid protein precursor (APP) gene.  He returned to Gusella’s lab after publishing several papers.  Deciding to remain at Harvard, he has progressed from assistant professor to full professor; he is also the director of the genetics and aging unit at Massachusetts General Hospital.  His research into Alzheimer’s disease has resulted in the search for the amyloid gene and the discovery of the presenilin 1 and 2 genes.  He continues to study the role of alpha-2 macroglobulin (A2M) in Alzheimer’s disease; to seek to identify risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease; and to look for new methods to discover the causes of AD.  He is currently writing a book about Alzheimer’s, a book for the layman.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1980 University of Rochester BA
1990 Harvard University PhD

Professional Experience

Massachusetts General Hospital

1980 to 1982
Research Assistant, Genetics Unit
1982 to 1985
Senior Research Assistant
1990 to 1994
Assistant Geneticist, Neurology
1994 to 1999
Associate Geneticist, Neurology
1995 to 1999
Director, Genetics and Aging Unit

Harvard University

1990 to 1992
Instructor, Neurology
1992 to 1994
Assistant Professor
1993 to 1999
Faculty Affiliate, Neuroscience
1994 to 1999
Associate Professor

Honors

Year(s) Award
1985

National Research Service Award

1993 to 1997

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

1995

The Metropolitan Life Foundation Award for Medical Research 

1996

The Potamkin Prize for Research in Pick's, Alzheimer's, and Related Disorders

1997

Alzheimer's Association T.L.L. Temple Foundation Discovery Award for Alzheimer's Disease Research

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Family background. Growing up in an Italian American community. Interests as teenager. Musical background.  Parental expectations.  Early schooling. Tanzi's interest in the history of science. Experiences in high school.

College Years
28

Attends University of Rochester, majoring in microbiology. Enters the Harry Tabor lab. Influence of the sixties counterculture on Tanzi. His early scientific awards and honors. Reasons for choosing to be a scientist rather than a physician. Stint as a rock musician. 

Technician Years
42

Works as a technician for James F. Gusella to help identify the Huntington’schorea disease gene. Begins work on the first full genetic map of a chromosome. Disproving the lineage between Alzheimer's disease and chromosome 21. Shifts from studying single human-disease genes to studying public polymorphisms. Problems surrounding life extension and identifying the causes of aging. Possibility of overcoming natural selection through molecular genetics.

Graduate School Years
67

Delayed entry to Harvard University as a graduate student. Works on Down Syndrome chromosome 21 with David Kumit. Marriage to Janet Saydak Tanzi— Evolution of Tanzi's research on Alzheimer's disease. Clones and characterizes the APP gene. Returns to the Gusella lab after publishing several papers. Learns protein biochemistry and immunohistochemistry in the Dennis J. Selkoe and Bradley T. Hyman labs. His grant history.

Early Years on Harvard University Faculty
74

The organizational structure of Tanzi's lab at Harvard. Funding at Harvard Medical School--Decision to remain at Harvard after graduate school. Becoming a principal investigator. Federal funding. Growing notoriety of Alzheimer's research. The search for the amyloid gene. Discovery of presenilin 1 and 2 genes. Tanzi's reasons for discontinuing his research on APP.

Current Work
98

Tanzi's lab management style. His current research on genes involved in late-onset Alzheimer's Disease. Role of alpha-2 macroglobulin (A2M) in Alzheimer's.  Opposition to Tanzi's A2M results. Identifying Alzheimer's disease risk factors. New methods of discovering the causes of Alzheimer's disease. Recent books on Alzheimer's disease. Tanzi's own book on Alzheimer's.

Index
123

About the Interviewer

Andrea R. Maestrejuan