Nature Medicine | Spoonful of Medicine

Ubiquitin pioneer awarded 2012 prize in biomedicine

The researcher who revealed that ubiquitins act like labels, tagging other proteins for destruction, received this year’s Frontiers of Knowledge Award in biomedicine from the BBVA Foundation in Spain. The award—which includes an unrestricted cash prize of €400,000 ($525,800)—went to Alexander Varshavsky, a molecular biologist at the California Institute of Technology, the foundation announced on Monday. Varshavsky’s work on ubiquitin advanced understanding of immune system disorders, cancers and neurodegenerative diseases.

The BBVA award “is richly deserved,” Avram Hershko told Nature Medicine in an email. Hershko earned the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation and collaborated with Varshavsky on a variety of projects. “Dr. Varshavsky made seminal and pioneering contributions to our understanding of the physiological functions of the ubiquitin system,” he noted. “His work had a huge impact on biology and medicine.”

The award from the BBVA Foundation is the latest in a long list of prizes that recognize Varshavsky’s contributions to biomedicine. Varshavsky and Hershko’s work on ubiquitin degredation earned them the 2000 Lasker Prize, which they shared with Aaron Ciechanover. The two scientists also won the 2001 Wolf Prize in Medicine and, the same year, Columbia University’s Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize for Biology or Biochemistry. In 2006, Vershavsky took home the $250,000 March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology.

Varshavsky, who began his career in the Soviet Union but immigrated to the US in 1977, also dabbled in cancer biology. He came up with a novel approach to target cancer cells that exploits the genetic deletions present in nearly all malignancies. The idea, known as deletion-specific targeting, won Varshavsky the $1 million Gotham Prize in 2008.

Photo courtesy of the BBVA Foundation

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