BETHESDA, MD, September 10, 2012--Four longtime members of the American Society for Cell Biology, including its current president, have been named 2012 winners of awards in basic medical science by the Albert Lasker Foundation. Considered the American "Nobel" prize in medicine, the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research was awarded to three ASCB members---Michael Sheetz of Columbia University, James Spudich of Stanford Medical School, and 2012 ASCB president Ronald Vale of the University of California, San Francisco---for "their discoveries concerning cytoskeleton motor proteins," according to the foundation. The foundation also named a fourth ASCB member---Donald D. Brown of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Baltimore---as co-winner of the 2012 Lasker-Koshland Award for Special Achievement in Medical Sciences for his "exceptional leadership and citizenship in biomedical science."
Spudich, Sheetz, and Vale revealed for the first time how families of tiny molecular motors power internal transport within cells and drive the fundamental mechanisms of life. Starting at Stanford in 1971, Spudich and his later visiting collaborator Sheetz pioneered the development in the alga Nitrella of a laboratory model system where they could watch the movement of myosin motor proteins along cellular tracks made of actin filaments. In the early 1980s, Sheetz and then graduate student Ron Vale moved their experiments to the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA, and the giant axon of the squid Loligo pealei to get a clearer view of myosin-powered transport along actin. Sheetz and Vale were able to see flurries of directed movement along the axon but realized that the movement was not along actin but on microtubules, the rapidly assembling and disassembling protein backbone of the cytoskeleton. They had discovered a whole new class of motor protein, which they named the kinesins. These breakthroughs in understanding how motor proteins drive internal transport, cell shape, and external cell movement set off a revolution in basic cell science and an ongoing wave of clinical innovations aimed at cardiac disease and cancer.
As a bench scientist in the 1950s and later as director of the Embryology Institute of the Carnegie Institution in Baltimore, Brown wrestled with one of the first mysteries of the DNA age, how did ribosomes, the cell's protein-making machinery handle DNA instructions encoded into ribosomal RNA messengers (rRNA) and process them into multiple protein copies. His work in frog embryos led Brown to the identification of several rRNA-producing genes and eventually to the first example of gene amplification, a process now known to underlie everything from embryonic development to acquired drug-resistance in cancer cells. Outside the lab, Brown founded the Life Sciences Research Foundation by tapping into the growing pharmaceutical industry to fund independent postdoctoral research fellowships.
Along with Vale, who is the current president of the ASCB, the 2012 Lasker winners include two past ASCB presidents---Spudich in 1988-89 and Brown in 1991-92. Sheetz served on the ASCB's governing Council from 1990 to 1992.