Fall 2015 Newsletter | Biology | Marquette University



Dr. Bela Piacsek – MU Faculty from 1968 – 2002
University Compliance Officer 2000-2007


Dr. Bela PiascekI received B.S. and M.S. degrees in the Department of Biology at the University of Notre Dame. It was the height of the cold war and doomsayers were predicting a nuclear war at any time. As a result interest in the effects of exposure to acute doses of ionizing radiation were in the forefront. Since the breakdown of the intestinal immune barrier and the subsequent invasion by resident microbes has been shown to be a component of the post exposure morbidity/mortality, we had the ideal facilities to further investigate this aspect of the radiation syndrome. Utilizing the germfree/gnotobiotic animals born and raised in germfree chambers at the LOBUND institute, we were able to further expand on this problems. The results of these studies were presented by my mentor R.Wilson at the 2nd Int. Congress Radiation Research. Although the results were fascinating and I was encouraged to stay and continue my research in this area, I wanted to expand my background in physiology and moved on to the Dept. of Physiology at Michigan State University. After I received my degree, I received a NIH postdoctoral fellowship and went to Harvard to work with Roy Greep and David Armstrong, where I was able to learn techniques for steroid hormone isolation and measurements. 


After two and a half years of postdoctoral work, I was offered academic appointment at three different institutions. I chose Marquette for more than one reason. The most important was the fact that the department had an NSF Centers of Excellence grant and was able to set up my laboratory with everything I needed to start research immediately. At the other two, I would have had to obtain funds externally after arrival. That would have set me back at least a year. Other reasons concerned with teaching. One course per semester, all in my area of expertise and no teaching duties the first semester gave me a good start in applying for grants and setting up my lab.  





Dr. Bela PiascekThe fact that external and internal environment can influence endocrine function was well established when I entered the field of endocrinology. This was especially true for reproduction. How the environmental information is transmitted to the anterior pituitary gland was a hot topic since the anterior lobe has no neural inputs. Through the pioneering work in this country and in England, the role of hypothalamic regulatory factors transmitted to the pituitary by a portal circulation, was established. When their chemical structure was defined (Guillemin, Schally 1972, Nobel prize 1977), they were designated as hormones rather than factors.  I dedicated the rest of my professional career to studying the role of the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis in mediating the role of internal and external environment in the control of reproduction and other related questions.    


The most obvious internal control is the negative feedback control by gonadal steroids. We utilized in vitro studies with rats to show that the removal of the ovaries and subsequent estradiol treatment resulted in increased and decreased hypothalamic luteinizing hormone releasing factor activity (GnRH) respectively. Subsequently, I turned my attention to light exposure, one of the most potent regulator of reproduction in many mammalian species. 


The year after I arrived, I received my first NIH grant from Child Health and Human Development.  I already had three graduate students and the grant enabled me to hire a fulltime technician. My previous studies have shown that continuous light exposure can increase pituitary gonadotropin release and that this effect is mediated through the basal hypothalamus. 


Our initial studies at Marquette were undertaken by my graduate student Gail Hautzinger to investigate the potential role of photoperiod, light intensity and light spectrum in adult cycling female rats.  Another graduate student, Ann Hardy chose to study the effect of altered photoperiod on the maintenance of corpora lutea in the ovary. Undergraduate student Bill Streur chose to do a project in my lab involving the effect of altered photoperiods on estrogen-induced precocious sexual maturation.  We also explored the potential role of increased photoperiods in the sexual maturation of male rats.  This study was conducted by Michael Goodspeed, a graduate student who also contributed to other studies in my lab.


Ambient temperature is another external environmental component that can influence both maturation and adult reproductive function.  My graduate student Stan Nazian (now Professor Emeritus at U. South Florida Medical School) tackled the problems with thermal effects.  He evaluated the endocrine components of the sexual maturation of both female and male rats raised in 10oC ambient temperature.  His studies explored the pituitary-gonadal-axis as well as the accessory organ sensitivity to testosterone in the pubertal male rat raised at 4oC.  Stan co-authored with me an invited chapter in Environmental Factors in Reproduction (B. Cook and D. Gilmore, eds., Macmillan, London, pp.214-231, 1981).

The last, but not least, environmental factor that we explored was nutrition and energy balance.  This had greater relevance to human health, because of the increased presence of anorexia, particularly in adolescent females.  We explored the effects of caloric deficiency in both premature and adult female and male rats.  Although previous studies have shown the detrimental effects of reduced food intake on reproductive/sexual function in several species, including primates, the mechanisms mediating this effect have not been elucidated.  My graduate student, Sherry Sprangers (now a professor at the U. of Maine), successfully investigated the hypothesis that caloric reduction increases the negative feedback potency of ovarian estrogens in adult female rats. By contrast, she also found an increase in the positive feedback efficacy of estradiol. The work of Kathy Lively, another graduate student, extended these studies by exploring the altered pituitary sensitivity to hypothalamic GnRH in prepubertal female rats.   At this point, we were already aware of the fact that pituitary LH secretion is not tonic, but occurs in distinct pulses.  My graduate student, Patricia Spillar, performed some technically difficult sequential sample collections for LH measurements. 


When it came to pulse analysis, we needed advice.  Fortunately I found it in the family.  Kristina Ropella, my daughter, is a biomedical engineer and an expert in signal processing of short term phenomena.  Two talented and hardworking undergraduates, Rose Tan and Tom Bonifer explored the question of reduced food intake in prepubertal male rats, again with the increased feedback efficacy of testicular androgens hypothesis in mind.  Tim Pater, an undergraduate and Jennifer Schmidt researched the role of Neuropeptide-Y in mediating the effects of caloric deficiency.


In addition to our studies of environmental control, we also addressed some questions of reproductive endocrinology that were not directly connected to environmental input.  Tom Schneider, one of my first graduate students clearly established the ovary and not the adrenal cortex as the source of the preovulatory rise of progesterone secretion.  Mike Goodspeed constructed a systematic analysis of the endocrine changes during maturation in the male rat.  Jim Huth, one of the top graduates from the college, studied the increase in ovarian blood flow following the preovulatory LH surge, clearly demonstrating the role of histamine.  Murray Hostetter, another one of my first group of graduate students used various approaches to study the role of prolactin in the maturation of male rats as well as in pseudopregnant females.  In a separate project, he explored the imprinting of neonatal androgenization on the adult reproductive system of male rats.   I also collaborated with Archie Vomachka, a member of our faculty on a project in hamsters.  At this point I should mention the dedication and valuable contributions of my technicians, Don Martinson, Nancy Statham and Marian Robb.  Our studies were published in the following journals: Endocrinology, Neuroendocrinology, J. Endocrinology, Biol. Reprod., Am. J. Physiology, J. Andrology, J. Exper. Zoology, J. Reprod. Fertil.  





Dr. Bela PiascekI started my teaching with an experimental physiology course.  Besides some of the standard protocols with nerve, muscle, heart and blood pressure control, we also asked the students to select and individual project to research.  They did come up with some real interesting ones, some involving the use of licensed chemicals and radioactive iodine for radioimmuno assays. 


When Art Houston, professor and assistant chair, left the department and went back to his native Canada, I took over the lecture course in comparative physiology. Although I continued the comparative design, I also mentioned clinical examples whenever they were appropriate.  It was appreciated by the pre-professional students.  Since students in Biology complain frequently about the number of math courses they have to take, I also introduced mathematical explanations, including differentials and integrals to illustrate the relevance.  Both of the above courses were offered in the fall semester.  In the spring semester I alternated between a graduate course in Endocrinology and a special topics graduate seminar.  Some of the topics included metabolism, circulation, interpretation of statistical results, etc.  Occasionally I taught a summer course in radiation safety as needed to satisfy NRC and State requirement for the use of radioactive isotopes in research.





All research, whether or not government sponsored, must comply with federal/state guidelines when the project involves the use of human subjects, vertebrate animals, radioactive isotopes, recombinant DNA and genetically modified organisms.  For many years, the administrative aspects of the oversight of the four areas was handled by the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs (ORSP).  Each area has a committee composed of faculty with the needed expertise to evaluate submitted proposals.  Some require at least one member who is not affiliated with the University.  By the end of the millennium, it became obvious that the existing arrangement was inadequate.  We lost the accreditation of our animal facilities and there were non-reviewed studies being done with human subjects under the wrong protocol number, to mention just a couple of areas.  Since I was already Radiation Safety Officer, I was asked by the Academic Vice President, Dr. David Buckholdt to take over the supervision of research compliance.  We moved the administration out of ORSP and established a separate Office of Research Compliance (ORC).  Eventually, I convinced the administration to provide two fulltime positions and a part time student help for this office.  We were also authorized to hire a fulltime animal facility supervisor.  I was fortunate to find some talented and dedicated individuals to fill these positions.  One was Michelle Van Gheem, who handled the administration in ORSP along with several other duties. Now she could devote 100 % of her time to compliance. She was familiar with the records and the review requirements.  The other I must mention was Javier Foronda, a talented and innovative man, who headed and organized the animal care facilities.  It took sometime but we regained full accreditation for our animal facility, passed unannounced inspections by the federal veterinarian.  We audited all questionable protocols with human subjects, successfully renewed all of our federal registrations, including our isotope license with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and later from the State when Wisconsin became the 33rd agreement state.  After I retired, I continued on a “part time" basis as compliance officer for five more years.




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