03/14/2001 08:00:00

Caltech Professor Awarded Wolf Foundation Prize for Insights Into the Life Cycle of Cells

PASADENA, Ca.-For his discovery of a critical protein system that regulates normal cell division and many other biological processes, the California Institute of Technology's Alexander Varshavsky has been named the co-recipient of the 2001 Wolf Foundation Prize in Medicine.

Varshavsky, the Smits Professor of Cell Biology at Caltech, will share the award with Avram Hershko of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. The Wolf Prize was established in 1978, and is designed to promote science and art for the benefit of mankind. Specifically, the pair is being honored for the discovery of the "ubiquitin system of intracellular protein degradation and the crucial functions of this system in cellular regulation." The prize includes an honorarium of $100,000 that will be split between the two awardees.

Proteins are biology's blue-collar workers. They are the catalysts that jump-start the various reactions of cellular life, telling cells when it's time to divide, change into other cell types, or die, and monitoring the timing of such events. When its specific job is done, it's often critical that a particular protein should be destroyed and thereby cease functioning.

Ubiquitin is a small protein that attaches itself to other proteins within a cell, marking them for degradation (or destruction) by proteases, still another kind of specialized protein. Ubiquitin is, well, ubiquitous in all organisms other than bacteria; hence its name. Using both mouse cells and baker's yeast as model organisms, Varshavsky proved that ubiquitin is essential for protein degradation in living cells. His laboratory also showed 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.

Conversely, malfunctions of the ubiquitin system often allow the cell's mechanisms to run amok. Therefore, these malfunctions play major roles 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 Academy of Microbiology. His other honors include the 1998 Merit Award from the National Institutes of Health; the 1998 Novartis-Drew Award in Biomedical Science; the 1999 Gairdner International Award from Canada's Gairdner Foundation; the 2000 Sloan Prize from the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation; the 2000 Albert Lasker Award in Basic Medical Research from the Lasker Foundation; and the 2001 Merck Award, from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.