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Boston researchers win “America’s Nobel Prize”

Mass. researchers win ‘America’s Nobel Prize’

Email| Text size – + September 13, 2008 05:01 PM

By Carolyn Y. Johnson, Globe Staff

Two Massachusetts researchers who discovered a natural dimmer switch in cells that can turn down the effects of genes are the winners of an Albert Lasker Medical Research Award, an honor sometimes called America’s Nobel Prize.

Victor R. Ambros

Victor R. Ambros of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, and Gary B. Ruvkun of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, shared the $300,000 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research with David C. Baulcombe, of the University of Cambridge.Ambros, 54, said the award recognizes Massachusetts as a hub of research into RNA, a molecule that was once seen as the workhorse of the cell, translating instructions in the genome into proteins. The Lasker Award recognizes the role that tiny strands of RNA, called microRNA, play in regulating gene expression.

“Out here at UMass, we like to think of ourselves as the center of the universe as far as RNA biology,” Ambros said, “but there is a certain truth to that.”

In a statement, Governor Deval Patrick said, “This very prestigious award illustrates that the University of Massachusetts Medical School has become a global leader in an area of scientific inquiry that has transformed the research landscape and offers so much promise for mankind.”

In 2006, Ambros’s colleague at UMass Medical School, Craig C. Mello, shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering that short, double-stranded RNAs could silence specific genes. But Ambros and Ruvkun discovered a gene in a microscopic roundworm that codes for microRNAs that can turn down gene expression. Baulcombe was studying how plants fight viruses when he discovered that short strands of RNA could shut down genes in plants. Today, microRNAs are thought to regulate one-third of the genes in the human body and have been implicated in numerous diseases.

Ruvkun described the award as an honor and said it has been gratifying to watch their discovery ripple through the field of biology. “Others started to look the same way we have looked in many, many organisms and processes. It went from two people thinking in these terms to hundreds and thousands of scientists over a 10 year period,” he said.

Scientists now study microRNAs to understand everything from normal development to their possible role in diseases such as cancer. MicroRNAs are also being investigated for their potential therapeutic potential at Regulus Therapeutics, a company that is a joint venture between Cambridge’s Alnylam Pharmaceuticals and Isis Pharmaceuticals in Carlsbad, Calif.

“It’s nice to see they’re getting recognition,” said Tyler Jacks, the director of the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT. “The appreciation of microRNAs, which has really been over the last 10 years, has opened up a whole new vista in our thinking about the regulation of expression of genes.”

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at

October 12, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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