Memories of Dr. Jeffrey K. Yao

Published:September 07, 2018DOI:
      I am honored to provide a few words to mark the untimely passing of our colleague Jeffrey K. Yao. It was Jeff's idea to organize the latest knowledge about the role of fats in human health and disease. So, this special issue of PLEFA is part of his legacy.
      Dr. Yao trained in biological chemistry, earning his PhD from the University of Detroit with additional postdoctoral training at the University of Michigan. He then held scientific positions at the Mayo Clinic and Medical School and was a visiting scientist at the neurochemistry laboratory of l'Hôpital Universitaire Pitié-Salpêtrière in Paris. He settled in Pittsburgh. Arriving in 1987, he was prolific in his positions at the University of Pittsburg and the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. During his 31-year tenure there, he published over 150 papers in the areas of metabolism, oxidative stress, and fatty acids. He was among the first to posit a potential role for arachidonic acid in severe mental illness.
      I first met Jeff at the 2001 annual meeting of the Society for Biological Psychiatry. The conference organizers placed Jeff's poster presentation next to my own. I assume this was because both our posters referenced the then-recently rediscovered biomarker of a blunted skin flush response to niacin among people with schizophrenia, and the possibility it demarks an arachidonic acid signaling abnormality. I believe ours were the only two presentations on this subject during the entire conference. Traffic was light in our nanozone of the conference, leaving us plenty of time to talk. So began a transcontinental collaboration that ultimately became transnational.
      In the years since that first meeting, the niacin response abnormality in schizophrenia has been widely replicated and seems on track to fulfilling criteria as a valid schizophrenia endophenotype. It is selectively associated with schizophrenia, is more prominent in first-degree relatives than among the general population, and shows evidence of heritability. Preliminary observations by our colleague Tianhong Zhang (Shanghai Mental Health Center, Shanghai Jiaotong University School of Medicine) that the blunted skin flush biomarker is present in youth with prodromal symptoms of schizophrenia inspired Jeff to test the extent to which the biomarker may predict transition to persistent psychosis. We, along with Dr. Zhang, were working to launch this ambitious project at the time of Jeff's passing. He confided that he could retire with satisfaction once that proposed work was complete.
      Being a scientist, Jeff always knew that hypotheses may fail, and their predictions may disappoint. The best that any of us can hope for is it ask the right questions, which Jeff did. And, motivated by a desire to bring psychiatric treatments closer to foundational targets, he was tireless in his pursuit of nature's answers.