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10/22/2002 07:00:00

Caltech Professor Awarded Wilson Medal for Insights Into the Life Cycle of Cells

Ubiquitin is the Swiss Army knife of proteins. Long known to be ubiquitous in all organisms (hence the name, of course), it plays important roles in cell growth, division, and death, in DNA repair, and in the body's response to stress.

For his discovery of the ubiquitin system and its crucial physiological functions, the California Institute of Technology's Alexander Varshavsky has been named the co-recipient of the 2002 E. B. Wilson Medal, the highest scientific honor given by the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB).

Varshavsky, the Smits Professor of Cell Biology, will share the award with Avram Hershko of the Technion—Israel Institute of Technology. Working separately, the pair made complementary discoveries of ubiquitin's many unique functions.

Ubiquitin is a small protein that attaches itself to other proteins within a cell that have outlived their usefulness, marking them for destruction. Hershko's initial studies uncovered ubiquitin's role in protein degradation in extracts derived from whole cells. Then, using cells from mice and baker's yeast as model organisms, Varshavsky proved that it is indeed ubiquitin that's essential for this natural process to take place. His laboratory also discovered that the ubiquitin system plays major roles in a number of biological processes, including cell growth and division, DNA repair, and responses to stress.

Subsequent work by numerous laboratories uncovered many other functions of this remarkable system, including its multiple roles in the functioning of the brain (for example, memory formation), in the development of most organs in the body, and in the regulation of general metabolism.

Scientists are now striving to understand the role of ubiquitin in many human diseases, including cancer, bacterial and viral infections, and neurodegenerative syndromes like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. Varshavsky's work on the ubiquitin system was instrumental in making possible the current efforts to devise new classes of drugs to attack such diseases.

Varshavsky is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. He has received many of the top international prizes in biology and medicine, including the Wolf Prize, the Horwitz Prize, and the Merck Award, (all in 2001), the 2000 Sloan Prize from the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation, the 2000 Albert Lasker Award, and the 1999 Gairdner Award.

The ASCB's E. B. Wilson Medal, named for an early 20th-century pioneer of American biology who advocated the chromosomal theory of inheritance, is awarded by scientific peers to those who have made highly significant and far-reaching contributions to cell biology over the course of a career. The society will present its award to Varshavsky and Hershko on December 15 in San Francisco, during the 42nd ASCB Annual Meeting.