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Sunday, April 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The wonderer: Jane Gross

Jane Gross


Age: 47

Occupation: Scientific fellow, ZymoGenetics

Education: University of Washington, Ph.D. in immunology

Distinguishing characteristic: Laughs so loudly her boss can hear her through the wall; has an unusual sense of wonder about science.

Accomplishment: Discovered a long-elusive protein that stimulates the immune system to become overactive and hurt healthy tissue. To stop the process, helped design a molecule that is currently in human tests.

Jane Gross has an article on her office door that says, "There is no single scientific method. It is a myth."

Thinking up a hypothesis and running an experiment to see if it is right — that's just a start, she believes, because it requires starting with an idea on the right track. But because what happens between human cells is still so mystifying, she always keeps an eye out for the unexpected, then follows through on it aggressively.

The unusual path led Gross, an immunologist, and her ZymoGenetics co-workers to a discovery that may be the first leap in 40 years against lupus, a painful inflammatory disease. She showed a long-elusive protein called BLyS ("bliss") creates overactive antibodies that hammer healthy tissues in the body.

That discovery was significant in itself. Most biologists would zero in on BLyS to see if they could counteract its effects with a designer-engineered molecule. Instead, Gross and her team thought a molecule already existing in the body might do it. They quickly copied it and discovered it can shut down lupus in mice.

ZymoGenetics, one of Seattle's leading biotech companies, is now betting much of its future on human tests to see if that molecule can be the basis for a hit drug.

Gross, 47, is a product of Berkeley, Calif., public schools, a self-described nerdy, straight-A student who leaned toward medical school but didn't care for the memorization. Out of college she took a job as a lab technician, became fascinated by the human immune system, and went back to school for a doctorate in immunology.

Gross, who has a laugh loud enough for her boss to hear it through walls, now spends days with meetings, ringing phones, and two young children to parent. Once they're in bed, from 10 p.m. to midnight, she does some of her best thinking, reading current science papers at the kitchen table.

She deflects credit to her peers, but they insist she deserves it. "Jane has something most adults lose, for some reason: a true sense of wonder and awe about the world," said Don Foster, a vice president at ZymoGenetics.

— Luke Timmerman

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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