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Last modified: Monday, March 24, 2008

Peter J. Roach

Distinguished Professor

Chancellor's Professor of Biochemistryand Molecular Biology
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
School of Medicine
University Graduate School
Indiana University- Purdue University Indianapolis
Appointed to IU faculty, 1979
B.Sc., University of Glasgow (Scotland), 1969
Ph.D., University of Glasgow (Scotland), 1972

"His groundbreaking discoveries have implications for the treatment of cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease."

--Ora H. Pescovitz, Interim Vice President for Research Administration, Indiana University

Peter Roach is recognized worldwide for his pioneering work on glycogen metabolism -- in fact, he is considered the world's foremost expert in this area. As David H. Wasserman, professor of molecular physiology and biophysics at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, says, this is not a trivial assertion. "Study of glycogen metabolism and the enzymes that regulate it is a very competitive and fast-moving area of research, as it is integral to understanding diabetes and metabolic disease."

Roach's early research in this area focused on identifying the mechanisms that control the activity of the enzyme glycogen synthase. Glycogen synthesis is a process in which glucose is taken from the bloodstream and converted into glycogen, a storage polymer. Glycogen synthase, the rate-limiting enzyme for glycogen deposition, is controlled by cell-signaling pathways that regulate the activity of different protein kinases -- enzymes that add phosphate groups to proteins, a process called phosphorylation.

Glycogen synthase is acted upon by multiple kinases and has six to seven sites of phosphorylation, something that at one time appeared hopelessly complicated to experts. But Roach's work identified the phosphorylation patterns and the basis of control for glycogen synthase, helping unravel a complex process fundamental to all life forms. Several principles of substrate recognition by protein kinases gleaned from this work, most notably what he termed "Hierarchal Phosphorylation," have turned out to be critical for many other normal and pathological biological processes.

Roach has made other significant contributions to understanding the physiology of glycogen metabolism, including groundbreaking work on glycogenin, the protein initiator of the glycogen polymer. More recently he has studied Lafora disease, a human brain disorder characterized by abnormal glycogen deposition involving mutations in laforin, a protein phosphatase enzyme.

"Peter has made seminal contributions to our understanding of the structure, function, and regulatory mechanism of the enzymes involved in glycogen metabolism," says Zhong-Yin Zhang, Robert A. Harris Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the IU School of Medicine. "His papers are characterized by beautiful data, careful analysis, and thoughtful interpretation." Adds David L. Brautigan, professor of microbiology and internal medicine at the University of Virginia, "Peter's research discoveries and his insight into underlying principles are exemplary of his meticulous approach to science and his creative and imaginative analysis of experimental data."

The high quality of Roach's scholarship is reflected in his record of funding. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases has funded his work continuously for 30 years, an extraordinary accomplishment matched by few researchers. Furthermore, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded MERIT status to one of Roach's NIH grants two times, once in 1992 and again in 2005. MERIT status signifies special recognition of the exceptional quality of the research conducted by the principal investigator. Receiving this type of recognition once is rare; receiving it twice is almost unprecedented.

Roach's decades of research have resulted in a prolific publication record -- he has authored more than 170 peer-reviewed papers and review articles. He has served or currently serves on the editorial boards of four scientific journals. He is also a sought-after speaker at universities, professional societies, and seminars in the United States and abroad. Additionally, he has held three visiting professorships, two in Italy and one in Japan.

Roach is also held in the highest regard as a teacher and mentor. He received an Indiana University Teaching Excellence Recognition Award in 1998, and in 2002 he received the Biochemistry Graduate Students Outstanding Mentor Award. He is also credited with recruiting and mentoring numerous faculty members who have become highly productive researchers.

The impact of Roach's research reaches far beyond the laboratory. "His groundbreaking discoveries have implications for the treatment of cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease," says Ora H. Pescovitz, interim vice president for research administration at Indiana University.

Yet despite his near-celebrity status in the academic world, Roach's peers say that he remains a model colleague. "I have never in my 30-plus years of research encountered an individual who was more honest, collegial, open to new ideas, or unselfish in sharing his knowledge," says Don McClain, professor of medicine at the University of Utah. "I know that the trail of his career consists of productive and helpful interactions with others that have bettered all of us."