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Virgil Renzulli, Associate Vice President
FOR USE UPON RELEASE , October 7, 1996

Columbia University Awards 1996 Horwitz Prize
to Biophysicists for Work on Nerve and Muscle Signals

Columbia University will award the 1996 Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize to two biophysicists for their discoveries of intricate molecular pathways that allow electrical signals to move muscles and signal the brain.

Clay Armstrong of the University of Pennsylvania and Bertil Hille of the University of Washington have worked for more than 30 years to understand electrical signals in the body called action potentials. The signals enable the brain to receive information from nerves throughout the body and allow muscles to contract. Without ever seeing one, they deduced the existence of ion channels, tiny ports in cells that allow electrically-charged ions to pass through, and the dimensions and structure of its gates. Their research, conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, was confirmed when the tools of molecular biology became available.

"The contemporary understanding of how ion channels contribute to the pathology of diseases, as well as to the therapeutic effects of many important classes of drugs, depends directly on their contributions," said David I. Hirsh, the Robert Wood Johnson, Jr. Professor and Chairman of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at Columbia, and Chairman of the Horwitz Prize Committee.

"Armstrong and Hille have trained a generation of membrane biophysicists now making their own significant contributions. Through seminal review articles and Hille's scholarly text, Ionic Channels of Excitable Membranes, they have greatly influenced the fields of neurobiology, physiology and cell biology, as well as membrane biophysics."

Columbia President George Rupp will present the prize in ceremonies Wednesday, October 16, in the Rotunda of Low Memorial Library on the University's campus in New York City. The prize, to be divided between Dr. Armstrong and Dr. Hille, carries a monetary award of $22,000 and is given annually for outstanding research in biology or biochemistry.

Leland Hartwell, a geneticist at the University of Washington, will receive the 1995 Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize the same evening for his research in cell division and replication and how they are altered in cancer. The announcement of the award was made last December, but winter storms prevented Dr. Hartwell from coming to New York for the presentation in January.

Ion channels are holes in the structure of protein molecules and are too small to be seen through a microscope. So it was only through detailed electrical measurements that the two researchers were able to deduce what properties ion channels must have to let nerves and muscles generate action potentials.

Dr. Hille showed that ion channels are able to discriminate among ions of different sizes and chemical compositions. He proposed that the eventual structure of the ion channel would include a ring of negative charges that would attract positively-charged ions. Dr. Armstrong demonstrated that ion channels possess gates that can open and close in response to small changes in voltage across the membrane. His measurements demonstrated that these gates were electrically charged structures.

The schedule for the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize Lectures is as follows:

Clay M. Armstrong was born in Chicago and raised in Dallas. He earned the B.A. at Rice University in 1956 and the M.D. at Washington University in 1960. Dr. Armstrong taught at Duke University and at the School of Medicine at the University of Rochester and then joined the faculty at the School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, where he has been a professor of physiology since 1976. He was president of the Society of General Physiologists from 1985 to 1986 and was selected as Distinguished Alumnus of Rice University in 1995. The National Academy of Sciences elected him to membership in 1986.

Bertil Hille, born in New Haven, Conn., earned a B.S. in zoology at Yale University in 1962 and a Ph.D. in life sciences from Rockefeller University. He has been associated with the University of Washington School of Medicine since 1968 and has been professor of physiology and biophysics since 1974.

His awards include the Alexander von Humboldt Senior Scientist Award in 1975, the Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Neuroscience Research in 1990, a Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award, 1984-1990, and a McKnight Neuroscience Research Award 1988-1994. He a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize was established under the will of the late S. Gross Horwitz in memory of his mother. She was the daughter of Samuel David Gross (1805-1889), a prominent Philadelphia surgeon who pioneered methods for suturing nerves and tendons and later served as president of the American Medical Association.

Since the Horwitz Prize was first presented in 1967, more than half of its recipients, 31 of 55, have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, or in Chemistry. Most recently, Edward B. Lewis and Christiane Nusslein-Volhard, who shared the 1995 Nobel in Physiology, won the Horwitz in 1992.

Other Horwitz Prize winners who subsequently won the Nobel Prize are Luis F. Leloir, Har Gobind Khorana, Marshall W. Nirenberg, Max Delbruck, Salvador Edward Luria, Albert Claude, George Emil Palade, Renato Dulbecco, Walter Gilbert, Frederick Sanger, David H. Hubel, Torsten N. Wiesel, Sune Bergstrom, Bengt Samuelsson, Aaron Klug, Barbara McClintock, Susumu Tonegawa, Cesar Milstein, Michael S. Brown, Joseph L. Goldstein, Rita Levi-Montalcini, Stanley Cohen, Thomas R. Cech, Erwin Neher, Bert Sakmann, Richard Ernst, Edwin G. Krebs, Phillip A. Sharp and Alfred G. Gilman.