Immunologist Wendy Havran, who had been researching the role of gamma-delta T cells in wound healing at the Scripps Research Institute since 1991, died from complications following a heart attack on January 20, according to a Scripps statement. She was 64.
“The entire Scripps Research community is stunned and saddened by this tragic loss,” Scripps colleague Jamie Williamson says in the statement. “Wendy not only made significant contributions to the field of immunology and wound healing, but she inspired countless Scripps Research graduate students and postdocs through her enthusiastic mentorship spanning nearly three decades.”
Havran was born on September 1, 1955, in Houston, Texas. Her father was an engineer while her mother was an elementary teacher.
She began her undergraduate degree at Duke University in 1973 with the initial desire to practice medicine. She began to stray from that path during her sophomore year when she started research under hematologist Gerald Logue. While working as a lab technician after graduation in 1977, she met then–Duke professor John Cambier, who introduced her to immunology. She instantly knew how she wanted to spend her career. “It just clicked, and there was no going back,” she told The Scientist in a 2019 profile. “I wanted to understand how the immune system worked.”
She pursued her doctorate at the University of Chicago, working in a T cell immunology lab. She became well-versed in creating monoclonal antibodies, as the lab was the first to be able to isolate and clone T cells capable of surviving and multiplying in culture.
Defending her thesis after four years in the program, Havran moved on to the lab of James Allison at the University of California, Berkeley, to work on gamma-delta T cells, a subgroup of unconventional T cells with gamma and delta T cell receptor chains, which were still relatively novel at the time. One notable accomplishment during this period was a paper published in 1990, showing for the first time that while gamma-delta T cells are scarce in areas such as the spleen and lymph nodes, they abound in epithelial tissue that makes up skin and intestines.
“Dermatologists were convinced that there were no T cells in the skin, so this finding was very unexpected,” Havran told The Scientist. “These cells were unique because T cells typically each express a unique T-cell receptor that recognizes a unique antigen, but these cells all expressed the same T-cell receptor, so they were basically clones.”
When it was time for Havran to establish her own lab, she continued her gamma-delta T cell research at Scripps. Early on, she found evidence that these cells contribute to wound healing. Later studies would find that they also help with tissue repair in the intestines. The last paper she published appeared in Nature Immunology and explained how gamma-delta T cells and immunoglobulins work in concert to suppress tumors by healing damaged epithelial tissue.
In addition to being dedicated to the work in her lab, Havran was passionate about mentoring up-and-coming scientists, and she was awarded the Scripps Research Outstanding Mentor Award in 2018. During her acceptance speech, she claimed that “mentoring is one of the best parts” of her job.
Havran is survived by her father, two sisters, three nieces, and two nephews.