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  • Alexander Varshavsky, Howard and Gwen Laurie Smits Professor of Cell Biology
04/15/2014 07:11:10

Cell Biologist Alexander Varshavsky Wins Albany Medical Center Prize

Alexander Varshavsky, Howard and Gwen Laurie Smits Professor of Cell Biology at Caltech, has been named the recipient of the 2014 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research.

The award, of which Varshavsky is the sole recipient this year, recognizes him for his groundbreaking work in biology, specifically for the "discovery of critical molecular determinants and biological functions of intracellular protein degradation," a set of fundamentally important processes that is central to the physiology of both individual cells and multicellular organisms.

"Studies by my laboratory, initially at MIT and later at Caltech, focused on the understanding of how and why cells destroy their own proteins to withstand stress, to grow and divide, to differentiate into new kinds of cells, and to do countless other things that make living organisms so astonishing and fascinating," Varshavsky says.

He and colleagues in his lab have spent the past several decades studying the ubiquitin system, a set of biological pathways that have in common a small protein called ubiquitin. This highly complex system was found to mediate the regulated degradation of intracellular proteins, and other processes as well. It was gradually understood that functions of this system are relevant to just about everything that living cells do.

"The field of ubiquitin research has been expanding at an amazing pace, and is now one of the largest arenas in biomedical science," Varshavsky says. "Both earlier and recent discoveries illuminate the ubiquitin system and protein degradation from many different angles and continue to foster our ability to tackle human diseases, from cancer, infections, and cardiovascular illnesses to neurodegenerative syndromes and the aging process itself."

Varshavsky is the second Caltech faculty member to receive the $500,000 Albany Prize for research in life sciences. The late Caltech geneticist and molecular biologist Seymour Benzer was a recipient of the Albany Prize in 2006.

"I feel privileged having been able to contribute to the birth of my field, and to partake in its later development," Varshavsky says. "I am most grateful to distinguished members of the Albany Prize Committee for their decision to recognize our contributions with this major award."

Varshavsky received his BS from Russia's Moscow State University in 1970 and his PhD from Moscow's Institute of Molecular Biology in 1973. He has been Smits Professor at Caltech since 1992.

A member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the Academia Europaea, Varshavsky has received many international prizes in biology and medicine, including the 2014 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the 2012 King Faisal Prize for Science (Saudi Arabia), the 2011 Otto Warburg Prize (Germany), the 2008 Gotham Prize in Cancer Research, the 2006 Gagna and Van Heck Prize (Belgium), the 2006 Griffuel Prize (France), the 2005 Stein and Moore Award, the 2001 Horwitz Prize, the 2001 Merck Award, the 2001 Wolf Prize in Medicine (Israel), the 2000 Lasker Award in Basic Medical Research, and the 1999 Gairdner Award (Canada).

One of the largest awards for medicine and science in the United States, the Albany Prize was founded by businessman and philanthropist Morris "Marty" Silverman in 2000 to recognize scientists and physicians whose work has resulted in "significant outcomes that offer medical value of national or international importance." Varshavsky will be honored at a ceremony in Albany on May 21.

Written by Jessica Stoller-Conrad