Molecular Biologist Recognized for Discovering the Biology of the Ubiquitin System
Alexander Varshavsky, Caltech's Thomas Hunt Morgan Professor of Biology, has received the 2017 Heinrich Wieland Prize from the Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation. The prize, named after the late Nobel Laureate Heinrich Wieland, honors "outstanding research on biologically active molecules and systems in the fields of chemistry, biochemistry, and physiology as well as their clinical importance."
Varshavsky was recognized for his work on the biology of the ubiquitin system, a large set of molecular pathways that have in common a small protein called ubiquitin. A major function of the ubiquitin system is the regulated degradation of cellular proteins. The ubiquitin system targets for selective destruction not only misfolded or otherwise abnormal proteins, but also normal proteins that have evolved to be short-lived, depending on specific physiological conditions. The destruction of such proteins underlies a multitude of biological processes, including cell growth and division, cell differentiation, gene expression, and DNA replication. Malfunctions of the ubiquitin system cause numerous human diseases, including neurodegeneration, diabetes, cancer, and immune deficiencies.
Varshavsky studied chemistry at the Moscow State University in Russia and received his PhD in biochemistry from the Moscow's Institute of Molecular Biology in 1973. In 1977, he took a faculty position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he began his research into the ubiquitin system, at the time a nascent area of study. In 1992, he moved his laboratory to Caltech. Varshavsky is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences. He has received a number of major awards, including the Canada Gairdner International Award, the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, the Max Planck Award, the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.
The Heinrich Wieland prize of 100,000 euros (approximately $118,000) was awarded on October 18 in Munich, Germany, at a scientific symposium in Varshavsky's honor.