Two Biophysicists Win Columbia's Horwitz Prize

Photograph: Clay Armstrong.
Photograph: Bertil Hille.

By Virgil Renzulli

Columbia will award the 1996 Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize to two biophysicists for their discoveries of the molecular mechanisms that underlie electrical signaling in our brain and muscles.

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."

President George Rupp will present the prize in ceremonies Wed., Oct. 16, in Low Rotunda. The prize, to be divided between Armstrong and 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 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.

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.

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:

Armstrong will discuss "Imagining Ion Channels: The Biophysics of Sodium and Potassium Ion Channel Proteins" on Tues., Oct. 15, at 12:30 P.M. in Hammer Health Sciences Center at Columbia's College of Physicians & Surgeons. Hartwell will speak on "Cell Cycle Checkpoints, Genomic Integrity and Cancer" Wed., Oct. 16, at 12:00 P.M. in C.P. Davis Alumni Auditorium of the Schapiro Center for Engineering and Physical Science Research on the Morningside Heights campus. Hille's talk, titled "G-Protein Coupled Receptors Rule The Mind," takes place Thurs., Oct. 17, at 3:00 P.M. in the Alumni Auditorium at the College of Physicians & Surgeons.

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.

Columbia University Record -- October 11, 1996 -- Vol. 22, No. 6