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NINDS's McKay Wins Schering Prize

By Shannon E. Garnett

Dr. Ronald McKay, chief of the NINDS Laboratory of Molecular Biology, recently received the 2004 Ernst Schering Prize for his groundbreaking scientific accomplishments in stem cell research and for expanding the understanding of cell development, especially the development of nerve cells and other brain cells.

One of the largest scientific prizes in Germany, the award is given to internationally renowned scientists for particularly outstanding work in the fields of basic scientific research focusing especially on biology, chemistry or medicine. It was established in 1991 by the Ernst Schering Research Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports science and culture. The prize was awarded at the Schauspielhaus at the Gendermenmarkt in Berlin.

Dr. Ronald McKay
McKay, who also serves as director of the NIH Stem Cell Characterization Facility, earned his Ph.D. for work in nucleic acid chemisty in 1974 from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He came to NINDS in 1993 to head the Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

In the first of his contributions to neurobiology, McKay showed that the nervous system is composed of many molecularly distinct neurons. Although this fact has since been supported by additional studies, at the time, McKay's experiments had a strong impact because they were the first to use monoclonal antibodies to demonstrate the complexity of the nervous system.

His work since has focused on the stem cells of the central nervous system. In 1988, McKay and his colleagues discovered nestin, a gene that identifies neuronal precursor cells — providing the first clear proof that these cells could be identified. Neuronal precursor cells determine the number and types of cells in the mammalian brain. Nestin is specifically expressed in neuronal stem cells and not in the differentiated cells of the mammalian central nervous system.

These studies have generated a series of important insights into the properties of stem cells in the developing and adult nervous system. They challenge the textbook view that stem cells exist only during the first embryonic differentiation stages and quickly differentiate in the course of fetal development to become specialized cells of various organs and tissue types. The results of McKay's work, however, support the conclusion that extracellular signals play a major role in directing cell differentiation through the entire period of central nervous system development.

Additionally, McKay and his colleagues were among the first to show that these neuronal stem cells could also be generated in the laboratory from earlier stem cells. Uniquely, he has played a decisive role in showing that the complex signal pathways of development can be controlled in the lab. His focus on the mechanism controlling stem cell differentiation led to his major experimental achievement, which was demonstrating that functional somatic cell types and tissues can be generated from stem cells in controlled experimental settings. As a consequence, his work is eagerly followed by doctors and patient groups interested in the properties of specific cells.

In his current work, McKay is looking for ways to make cell differentiation in the Petri dish a routine procedure and to produce large amounts of specific human cell types that can be used for further clinical studies.

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