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Robert Lamb, renowned expert on influenza virus, dies at 72

Virologist’s contributions to research and education at Northwestern spanned four decades

Robert A. Lamb, professor emeritus of molecular biosciences at Northwestern University, died Sept. 2. He was 72.

Robert Lamb
Robert Lamb retired in 2022 from Northwestern after 39 years of service.

Lamb was an internationally recognized authority on influenza and paramyxoviruses. He made major contributions to the understanding of the molecular structure and the mechanism of replication of these disease-causing negative-strand RNA viruses. Lamb’s research revealed fundamental properties of the virus life cycles that have been crucial to the development of new vaccines and medicines.

“Bob was an integral member of our department, an outstanding scientist and a generous colleague,” said Amy Rosenzweig, the Weinberg Family Distinguished Professor of Life Sciences and chair of the department of molecular biosciences at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. "His unwavering enthusiasm for and support of structural biology positively impacted the careers of many in the department, including myself.”

Lamb, the Kenneth F. Burgess Professor of Molecular Biosciences in Weinberg College and professor of microbiology-immunology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, retired in 2022 from the University after 39 years of service. He also served as chair of the molecular biosciences department and was an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) since 1991.

“Bob Lamb was an eminent scientist who advanced our understanding of viruses,” Provost Kathleen Hagerty said. “He also was dedicated to mentoring young scientists, from undergraduates to postdoctoral fellows, for 40 years. Bob will be missed by many.”

His goal was understanding how a virus forms

Lamb and his research group specifically studied the structural basis for virus-cell and cell-cell membrane fusion and the mechanisms of influenza virus and paramyxovirus assembly. Lamb’s goal was to better understand how a virus is formed and the processes by which these viruses enter cells and assemble at the plasma membrane. Knowledge of their structure could aid scientists in developing new vaccines.

In 1983, Lamb joined the faculty at Northwestern as an associate professor, where his laboratory combined classic virology and molecular cell biology with reverse genetics, protein biochemistry, mass spectroscopy, electron microscopy, crystallography and electrophysiology to investigate the mechanisms underlying virus membrane biology. His lab produced detailed structure-function analyses of the entry glycoproteins of paramyxoviruses, including the visualization of the pre-fusion structure of a paramyxovirus fusion protein for the first time.

“Bob’s work as a scientist was matched by his leadership at Northwestern,” said Adrian Randolph, dean of Weinberg. “He was a trusted and thoughtful chair of the department of molecular biosciences for several years, and his guidance was instrumental in their success.”

One of Lamb’s first colleagues in the department was Richard Morimoto. The two arrived at Northwestern within a month of each other in fall 1982, having both been recruited by department chair Emanuel Margoliash.

“He encouraged us to work together and help plan for the department’s future,” recalled Morimoto, the Bill and Gayle Cook Professor of Molecular Biosciences. “With generous set-up funding, we purchased new instrumentation for molecular biology that everyone could benefit from.

“For the first phase of our time at Northwestern, Bob and I were in adjacent labs that shared a door that was always open to people and ideas. Across the years, we continued to talk frequently as we knew many of the same scientists and shared a common philosophy of science.”

He fostered strong collaborations

To accomplish his research goals, Lamb fostered strong collaborations with virologists, cell biologists and biochemists worldwide. In an interview with HHMI, he explained, “I've worked on viruses since 1974, but I've been all over the place — that's what keeps you alive intellectually. You've got to keep moving, and when new types of technologies come along, you embrace them."  

This approach of Lamb’s is exemplified by an interdisciplinary collaboration over two decades with Lawrence Pinto, a neurobiologist at Northwestern. That work included revealing in 1992 the ion channel activity of the Matrix-2 (M2) protein, which is integral in the viral envelope of the influenza A virus. Lamb and Pinto defined the channel’s role in influenza virus entry as well as membrane scission in virus exit. These studies also revealed the mechanism by which the antiviral drug amantadine inhibits influenza virus replication.

“It was remarkable to see Bob’s versatility in making the jump to a different field,” said Pinto, professor emeritus of neurobiology. “If the solution required new expertise, he sought this out and endeavored to learn and understand new fields himself. In doing so he brought many colleagues into the field, to the benefit of us all.”

Culminating years of interest on the mechanism of virus-cell membrane fusion, Lamb and his lab worked with Ted Jardetzsky (now at Stanford University) to produce high-resolution structures of the paramyxovirus F and HN proteins.

In 1999, Lamb and Jardetzky determined the three-dimensional structure of a key protein molecule found in viruses, whose form suggests that viruses from different families, including measles, mumps, HIV and influenza, enter cells by a remarkably similar mechanism. And in 2006, they determined the three-dimensional structure of two forms of the same key protein molecule found in viruses like measles and mumps that is needed for entry of the virus into cells. This protein undergoes a metamorphosis and acts as a machine to enable the viruses to invade a cell.

He has a legacy of mentorship

Lamb’s impact on virology is also clearly seen in his legacy of mentorship. During his career, Lamb mentored 67 Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows and taught countless undergraduate students in his virology course. He challenged his trainees to excel in all aspects of science and encouraged service to the community. This rigorous training helped many individuals to secure leadership roles in academia and industry.

Lamb received numerous honors for his contributions to the field of virology. He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology. He served as president of the American Society of Virology and editor-in-chief of the journal Virology. With more than 300 scientific publications, Lamb was an International Statistical Institute (ISI) highly cited researcher.

Born in Muswell Hill, London, Lamb earned his undergraduate degree in biochemistry at the University of Birmingham, England, and earned his Ph.D. and Sc.D. degrees from the University of Cambridge. In 1974, he came to the United States to work with Purnell Choppin at The Rockefeller University, first as a postdoctoral fellow and then as an assistant professor.

Lamb is survived by his spouse, Reay Paterson, who also was his long-term collaborator and a co-author on more than 50 manuscripts, and also by his children, Alexander, Duncan and Gabriella.

Visitation will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 14, at the Wm. H. Scott Funeral Home, 1100 Greenleaf Ave., Wilmette, Illinois.

Celebrate Lamb’s career on Sept. 21

All are welcome to celebrate Bob Lamb’s long career with Northwestern and the department of molecular biosciences on Sept. 21 at the 4th annual Lamb Lecture.

The seminar will begin at 12:30 p.m. in the auditorium of the Pancoe Life Sciences Pavilion, 2200 Campus Drive, Evanston campus.

Andrew Pekosz, who was a postdoctoral fellow in the Lamb lab, will share how his training at Northwestern prepared him for his career in academia. Pekosz is professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins University. An informal lunch reception will follow, and guests will be encouraged to share memories of Bob.