Helen Cooke was born in Greenfield, Massachusetts in 1943. She received a B.S. degree from the University Massachusetts in 1965 and an M.S. from U.C.L.A. in 1967. Shortly thereafter, she moved to Australia and obtained a Ph.D. in 1971 from the University of Sydney on the topic of electrolyte and amino acid transport in the kidney. Dr. Cooke returned to the United States and accepted a part-time appointment in 1971 as Instructor in the Physiology Department at the University of Iowa Medical School. She was subsequently promoted to Assistant Professor In 1973. From 1976 to 1980, she held a part-time appointment as Assistant Professor in the Department of Physiology at the University of Kansas Medical School. In 1980 she moved to the University of Nevada at Reno as Assistant Professor of Physiology, and continued up the ranks to Associate Professor and then Professor. Dr. Cooke then moved to The Ohio State University College of Medicine and was Professor of Physiology from 1985 to1996. She subsequently was on the faculty in the Departments of Pharmacology and Neuroscience. In 1994, she took a sabbatical leave to work with Dr. Tadataka (Tachi) Yamada at the University of Michigan. She retired in July, 2009 and is currently Emeritus Professor in the Department of Neuroscience at Ohio State.
Dr. Cooke ’s research program centered around the identification of the enteric neural reflex pathways that control neurogenic chloride secretion in the gastrointestinal tract, an emerging field in neurobiology. Some of the most exciting and important work from Dr. Cooke ’s laboratory involves understanding how the balance between intestinal absorption and secretion is tipped to net secretion when neural pathways within the enteric nervous system, and specifically the submucosal ganglia are activated. The net amount of fluid in the intestinal tract results from two processes, absorption and secretion, which is carried out daily by epithelial absorptive cells and crypt cells, respectively. Normally, a low rate of fluid secretion into the gut lumen lubricates the intestinal lining and facilitates propulsion of the intestinal contents. However, when chloride secretion predominates, the fluid, like tears, washes away foreign antigens and helps control the numbers of gut microorganisms. These studies have relevance to food allergies that produce intestinal malaise and diarrhea and to inflammatory bowel diseases, including Crohn’s disease.
Dr. Cooke ’s research characterized the important role played by serotonin (5-HT) in mucosal reflex pathways. 5-HT is released from enterochromaffin cells in the mucosal lining that are sensitive to mechanical stimuli and inflammatory mediators. 5-HT then activates receptors found on afferent neurons that synapse with submucosal secretomotor neurons. As a result, chloride is secreted and drives fluid secretion into the lumen. Over time, she and others advanced the understanding of the critical role that mucosal reflexes like this one play in gastrointestinal health and disease.
Dr. Cooke has published over 113 peer-reviewed research articles, 21 book chapters and 155 abstracts. She received a number of awards, including a Research Career Development Award from the National Institutes of Health, an Eloise Gerry Fellowship, the Hoechst Marion Roussel Distinguished Research Award from the American Physiological Society and the Masters Award for Excellence from the American Gastroenterogical Association.
Dr. Cooke served on study sections of the National Institutes of Health including NIH General Medicine GMA-1 (1987-1999), NIH General GMA-2 (1997) and General Sub-Committee C (1992-1995). She also served on several review groups of the American Heart Association. Dr. Cooke served on editorial boards of the American Journal of Physiology: Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology, Gastroenterology, News in Physiological Sciences and Gut, and was on the external advisory board of the Center for Ulcer Research and Education (CURE).