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Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize Awarded to Researchers Avram Hershko and Alexander Varshavsky for Work on Protein Balance

By Leslie Boen

Dr. Avram Hershko, Distinguished Professor, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology

Dr. Alexander Varshavsky, Howard and Gwen Laurie Smits Professor of Cell Biology, California Institute of Technology

Columbia University awarded this year's Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize to Dr. Avram Hershko, Distinguished Professor at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and Dr. Alexander Varshavsky, Howard and Gwen Laurie Smits Professor of Cell Biology at California Institute of Technology. Both researchers are being honored for their breakthrough work on the ubiquitin system, the mechanism by which the cell maintains a proper and healthy balance of proteins.

Proteins are the engines that drive the life of the cell. But proteins themselves must undergo a normal life-and-death cycle to preserve the healthy functioning of the cell. The ubiquitin system, as articulated by Hershko and Varshavsky, plays a fundamental part in this process.

In the ubiquitin system, a small but versatile protein (ubiquitin) targets and tags cellular proteins with pinpoint-like precision, marking them for death and alerting the cell to eliminate them. This process has been implicated in a wide variety of physiological processes, including cell division, DNA repair, the immune response, and programmed cell death. Problems with the ubiquitin system have been associated with a number of medical conditions, including cancer, AIDS, autoimmune disease, and neurodegenerative disorders.

Hershko was the first to identify the process through which ubiquitin interacts with its intended targets, identifying the biochemical pathway that marks proteins for destruction and showing that three enzymes work in sequence to successfully complete this task.

Varshavsky's research revealed that the ubiquitin system doesn't just work in the test tube, but also has profound functional significance in living cells, where it plays a key role in regulating cellular growth and division. Varshavsky then uncovered the first set of rules that determine which proteins are destroyed. Taken together, these seminal findings have yielded invaluable insights into biochemical mechanisms and the cell cycle, and have impacted virtually all areas of biology and medicine.

This is not the first time Hershko and Varshavsky have been recognized for these groundbreaking achievements. In addition to receiving numerous other citations, both scientists were honored in 2000 with the prestigious Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, widely known as a precursor to the Nobel Prize. (More than 50 percent of Lasker Basic Medical Research Award winners have gone on to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology, Medicine, or Chemistry, most within two years of receiving the Lasker Award.)

Awarded annually since its inception in 1967, the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize is given to recognize exceptional accomplishments in biological and biochemical research. Like the Lasker, the Horwitz Prize is also an excellent predictor of future Nobel Laureates; half of its past recipients (33 out of 66) ultimately won the Nobel Prize. The prize was named for the mother of Columbia benefactor S. Gross Horwitz, who was the daughter of former AMA president and surgery textbook author Dr. Samuel David Gross.

Published: Dec 13, 2001
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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