Faculty Profile: David Krantz

When David Kranz was born, his parents got a two-for-one deal. Ninety minutes after his arrival, Kranz’s brother Robert came along. The Kranz twins shared many interests, including a fascination with science and, particularly, nature. Today, Kranz is a professor of biochemistry in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) at the University of Illinois (U of I) and his brother is a professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis.

Our interests in science were parallel to each other,” said Kranz. “When we grew up, one of our pastimes was nature…in the sense of catching bugs and having bug wars. We’d catch an ant or a spider, and have it battle a bee, things like that.”

Balancing Work and Life

When David Kranz was born, his parents got a two-for-one deal. Ninety minutes after his arrival, Kranz’s brother Robert came along. The Kranz twins shared many interests, including a fascination with science and, particularly, nature. Today, Kranz is a professor of biochemistry in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) at the University of Illinois (U of I) and his brother is a professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis.

Our interests in science were parallel to each other,” said Kranz. “When we grew up, one of our pastimes was nature…in the sense of catching bugs and having bug wars. We’d catch an ant or a spider, and have it battle a bee, things like that.”

atkins at a weekly lab meeting

The high point of every year, said Kranz, was the family’s summer trip to Wisconsin for fishing, hiking, and catching more creatures. The family of eight would pile into the family station wagon. On the return trip the car would always be slightly fuller, with a snake, turtle, or other creature the boys smuggled along.

“My parents were pretty tolerant, I must say,” said Kranz, shown here at a lab meeting with his students. “They were always saying, ‘go, do what you have fun doing.’ And they also really took academics seriously.”

It was at Illinois State University, earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees that Kranz developed a more focused interest in molecular approaches to biology. He was most inspired by Herman Brockman, a classical geneticist.

“He had such an enthusiastic, powerful way of teaching that I got really excited about that,” said Kranz.

Kranz did undergrad and master’s thesis research on the Serratia marcescens bacteria. He then worked as a laboratory technician for a few years in order to decide on his next step. He took a position at Rush Medical School in Chicago in the immunology department, which turned out to be a pivotal step in the evolution of his research interests. The job helped him recognize that immunology was the field for him. It also made him realize that he wanted to get a Ph.D.

“I wanted to run the projects myself and guide the research, not just take orders,” said Kranz.

In 1978 Kranz came to the U of I to earn a doctorate in Ed Voss’s microbiology laboratory. Voss was the only immunologist in the basic sciences at the time but Kranz liked the environment, both in the lab and outside of it.
“I liked being around other graduate students,” said Kranz. “We had a softball team, even Ed was on the team. It’s that kind of atmosphere I was really looking for: not just science, but science balanced with a fun time.

“It’s an easy atmosphere to both do hard work and to go out and have fun in,” said Kranz of the University of Illinois. “Partly, the campus is set up so you can do that.”

Another good thing about his graduate school experience was that Kranz met his future wife, Del, who was a technician in the department. After graduate school, Kranz went to the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) for a postdoctoral appointment. Among others, he worked with Susumu Tonegawa and Herman Eisen.

Eisen, a preeminent immunologist, has been the most influential scientist in Kranz’s career, he said. And Tonegawa, who won the Nobel Prize in 1987 for discoveries about antibodies, was one of the first to use molecular biology to study the immune system.

“Cloning genes into a vector was the fundamental thing in the 70s and 80s that became doable,” said Kranz. “We’d take a gene that codes for some protein and clone it into a vector, which was at that time almost always one we grew up in E. coli. Then we’d isolate the vector/plasmid and take the gene and put it wherever we wanted.

“It has become so much easier to do molecular biology,” noted Kranz. “In the early 1980s it was a real feat just to do hardly any molecular biology. Now it’s really easy, which is why 100 times more labs are doing it.”

Kranz, Eisen, and Tonegawa, along with other colleagues, successfully isolated the T cell receptor genes, and published several Nature papers on cloning and identifying these genes. When the time came to apply for faculty positions, Kranz had no intention of returning to his home state.

“I didn’t think I would come back here, actually,” said Kranz. “But when I visited, my mind was refreshed on how the style of living was really good. I was also reminded about the collegiality of the faculty. If you’re away for five years, you get swept up in the East Coast, MIT mentality. I thought I needed to stay in that atmosphere to compete. But then when I came here I realized there are other aspects of living here that I value.” He also was reminded how much fun it would be to work with such talented undergraduate and graduate students.

These days, Kranz and his lab continue to work on understanding T cells. He has focused his efforts on designing therapeutic approaches based on his basic research findings. He and his colleagues have successfully engineered the T cell receptor, improving its binding ability, and in so doing have developed a way to speed the process of drug discovery.

With Professor Dane Wittrup, then in Chemical Engineering at U of I, Kranz established a company based on this technology, known as “yeast display.” In 2002 Abbott Labs, an Illinois-based company, acquired Kranz’s company.

A lot has changed, both inside the laboratory and outside, in the two decades since Kranz first arrived as an assistant professor. Instead of being the only immunologist in the basic sciences, he shares the floor with five others. Kranz’s daughter just graduated from the U of I with a degree in MCB and his son, whose primary interest is soccer, attends Centennial High School.

And, while it is true that Kranz and his brother are still fascinated with nature, Kranz promised they no longer tuck wild animals into their family cars.

January 01, 2008 All News