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Yale Biophysicist Thomas Steitz Receives Gairdner Award for Medical Research


New Haven, Conn. — Yale biophysicist Thomas A. Steitz has received one of the four 2007 Gairdner International Awards, among the most prestigious awards in science, for his groundbreaking work on the structure and function of the large subunit of the ribosome and the structural basis for the action of antibiotics that target the ribosome.

“The 2007 awards reflect the importance of basic discoveries that lead to a better understanding of human disease and the development of treatments and cures to alleviate them,” said John Dirks, President and Scientific Director of the Gairdner Foundation.

Thomas A. Steitz, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry at Yale, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and Harry F. Noller of the University of California at Santa Cruz were honored for their studies on the structure and function of the ribosome, demonstrating that a step in bacterial protein synthesis is an RNA-catalyzed reaction. This step is inhibited by many antibiotics, and understanding the structural basis of the function points the way to the development of new antibiotics.

“A major health consequence of the increasing number of antibiotic resistant bacteria is that two million people every year get infections from them in hospital facilities — and 90,000 per year die from them,” said Steitz.

His close collaboration with Yale faculty colleague, Peter Moore and interactions with William Jorgenson led to the establishment of a company, Rib-X Pharmaceutical, Inc., which is using this knowledge of the structures of the large ribosomal subunit and its antibiotic complexes to create new classes of antibiotics. In just five years, Rib-X, has moved one potential compound into Phase II clinical trials and hope that shortly others will enter the Phase I trials pipeline.

Two additional investigators were honored by the Gairdner Foundation honored for their work in cell biology. C. David Allis of The Rockefeller University discovered the histone code hypothesis, a universal mechanisms for modifications in histone proteins that affect stability of the genome and gene transcription. Kim A. Nasmyth of Oxford University made a series of discoveries pinpointing mechanisms in cell division that are essential to life.

The Gairdner Foundation was established in 1957 by Toronto businessman James A. Gairdner, a successful stockbroker and industrialist. His lifelong practical interest in clinical medicine and medical research led to a conviction that the achievements of medical scientists should be acknowledged in a tangible way.

Since 1959, the Gairdner International Awards have recognized extraordinary accomplishment in medical science; they are acknowledgements of achievement, rather than grants for the support of future research. The awards honor outstanding contributions by medical scientists worldwide whose work will significantly improve the quality of life. Of the 283 Gairdner winners, 68 have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

As part of the Gairdner’s mandate to communicate the work of medical researchers, each October, Gairdner winners visit universities across Canada and present academic lectures on their area of expertise. Each prize carries a cash award of $CDN 30,000 (about $26,700).

Since 2003, the lead national sponsor of the Gairdner awards has been the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the major federal agency responsible for funding health research in Canada that supports the work of 10,000 researchers in universities, teaching hospitals and research institutes across Canada.

Three additional Yale faculty members have received Gairdner International Awards in the recent past. In 2006, Joan Steitz, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, was honored for her work on small nuclear RNAs in gene expression. That same year Thomas Pollard, M.D., Sterling Professor and Chair of Molecular Cellular & Developmental Biology was recognized for discoveries about the cell’s cytoskeleton, and the basis of cell motility and its relevance to human disease. In 2004, Arthur Horwich, M.D., Higgins Professor of Genetics and Pediatrics was cited for his discoveries about protein folding in the cell and its relevance to neurodegeneration.


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