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Carol Reinisch

In Profile
Carol Reinisch, Director of the MBL’s Laboratory of Aquatic Biomedicine

Spend any time with Carol Reinisch and you’ll quickly learn that, when it comes to her work, Reinisch can be as hard shelled as the clams she studies. In fact, during the Blizzard of 2005, when an experiment she’d been coddling for two weeks was ruined, she simply chalked it up to life. “What could I have done?” said Reinisch, who had to repeat the experiment from square one after being snowed in at home for three days.

Perhaps it’s her toughness that keeps Reinisch pushing for answers. Especially when she has a scientific hunch like one that recently drove her to study the combined effects of bromoform, chloroform, and tetrachloroethylene on surf clam (Spisula solidissima) embryos.

The recent study is one of many designed to answer a question that has nagged at Reinisch for the better part of her career: How do environmental pollutants impact health?

It was a question that arose early for Reinisch, who received her Sc.D. in tumor virology from The Johns Hopkins University. She found excellent research models for this kind of work early on, too. Reinisch was a student of Frederik Bang, who introduced her to the MBL in 1968, and taught her the importance of marine organisms as biomedical models. “I have been influenced by his profound insights ever since,” she says.

Reinisch returned to the MBL many times to teach in courses and conduct short research projects before finally establishing a year-round laboratory in Woods Hole. She also sharpened her already acute research skills while working at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, Harvard Medical School, and Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, where for 15 years she chaired what is now the Department of Environmental and Population Health.

Over time, Reinisch’s scientific focus shifted from tumor immunology to environmental biology. “I switched because I am interested in toxicologic mechanisms at the gene/cell and whole animal level,” she says.

Everything came together when Tufts vet student, Cynthia Smith, opened Reinisch’s eyes to the surf clam model. Smith wanted to use non-vertebrate animals for research purposes and was particularly interested in the effects of toxins on nerve cells. With the help of MBL veteran surf clam experts Bob Palazzo and Joan Ruderman, Reinisch and Smith learned how to study the clam embryos. Smith soon proved that PCBs specifically target nerve cells during embryo development, and Reinisch had herself an ideal vehicle for the study of pollutant-induced neurotoxicity, a subject of increasing importance to her.

By 1998, Reinisch’s deep interest in using marine models and her respect for the MBL’s new Marine Resources Center as “a fantastic facility for researchers such as myself,” finally lured her to the MBL. Since then, she has conducted groundbreaking studies that have helped demonstrate links between pollutants and leukemia in soft-shell clams (Mya arenaria), as well as a species of mussels (Mytilus edulis). She has also demonstrated that pollutant combinations, such as PCBs or bromoform, chloroform, and tetrachloroethylene, definitively impact cell development in surf clams. Work in both areas is significant, because it may eventually help scientists understand how pollutants affect the developing fetus in humans.

Throughout her career, Reinisch has had the good fortune to attract multiple grants from the National Institutes for Health, the American Cancer Society, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Not one to bask in the limelight, she credits great colleagues for her funding successes. “My laboratory was unbelievably fortunate to get unstinting help from Ray Stephens, one of the premier protein chemists in the world,” says Reinisch. “Without his help and the postdoctoral fellows in the lab, I would never have obtained this kind of funding.”

And what kind of mark does Reinisch hope her lab’s work will leave? True to her hard exterior, she offers little. “Well, that is to be determined not by me, but by my peers,” she says.

Frederik B. Bang

Frederik B. Bang, M.D., was an MBL visiting scientist, a mentor, and a discoverer. Professor and chairman of the Department of Pathobiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Dr. Bang was a strong proponent of marine research models. He spent many summers at the MBL. During the summer of 1956, he and MBL Corporation Member Jack Levin studied horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus) blood and discovered that its amebocyte cells could be used to detect bacterial toxins that cause disease in humans. The discovery led to the manufacture of Limulus Amebocyte Lysate, a diagnostic reagent now widely used to test humans for toxins.

The MBL’s Frederik B. and Betsy G. Bang Fellowship Fund supports summer fellowships in honor of the late Dr. Bang and his wife. Fellowships are offered for the study of the immune capability of marine animals and more generally for the use of marine models for research in molecular biology or biomedicine. Funds primarily support laboratory space and research expenses. If you would like to contribute to the Frederik B. and Betsy G. Bang Fellowship Fund, please contact the Development office at (508) 289-7650.