January 30, 2013

Jiri Mestecky, M.D., Ph.D.

Written by
mestecky webJiri Mestecky, M.D., Ph.D., came to Birmingham from the former Czechoslovakia in 1967, leaving their Academy of Sciences to come to UAB for one year of studies in microbiology.

“Then my stay was extended to two years,” Mestecky says. “And then the Russians came and occupied the country. And then I met my wife. So, I decided to stay.”

Mestecky has spent the past 45 years at UAB investigating the structure, biosynthesis and function of human and animal immunoglobuilin A (IgA) and immune responses. He also was among the first scientists to develop reliable assays for the measurement of mucosal HIV immune responses, to investigate correlates of HIV transmission and to participate in the effort to develop vaccines to prevent the infection. Add to that his efforts in mucosal immunology, and it’s been a robustly productive four-and-a-half decades.

Mestecky was recently among more than 250 employees honored at UAB’s Service Awards Program, which recognizes employees with 20 or more years of service.

Mestecky, whose first day at UAB was March 7, 1967, is this year’s longest tenured employee at 45 years. As a world-renowned researcher with more than 500 papers published, Mestecky has had several opportunities to leave over the years, but he always elected to stay.

“It just wasn’t advantageous to go,” he says. “When I compared laboratories, the people I was working with, retirement programs — the whole package — it didn’t make sense to leave.”

Mestecky officially retired Jan. 1, 2012, but he continues to work part time, and so far hasn’t had time to slow down. His research into IgA nephropathy, a kidney disorder also known as Berger’s disease, will continue, as will his long-term research on HIV. He also is a few months away from completing the fourth edition of Mucosal Immunology, the official publication of the Society of Mucosal Immunology. The book, which comes in two volumes and will span some 2,000 pages, focuses on immunity and inflammation involving mucosal tissues.

“When we started with mucosal immunology it was considered to be a somewhat strange area of research,” Mestecky says. “It is now fully recognized that most of the cells involved with any kind of immune response are associated with mucosal issues. The gut is by far the largest organ in the body. In everyday life, this is where the stimulation of the immune system comes from.

“The major stimulus for the entire immune system is what we eat and what we breathe and the bugs that live in our gut. What keeps the immune system going is what’s around us,” he says.

As for retirement, Mestecky says there isn’t anything special he wants to do that he hasn’t already done. He does know that he and his wife Peggy Jane will go back to the Czech Republic where they have an apartment and a summer house he inherited from his father.

“It’s been in my family since 1946,” he says. “It’s in the woods, very quiet and just gorgeous. It’s a wonderful place to relax. Last year, I spent four days in the summerhouse. Hopefully I’ll be able to spend four weeks there this year.”

This story originally ran in the UAB Reporter.