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Vol. LXIII, No. 20
September 30, 2011

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Lasker Awards Honor Clinical Center, Former Grantees

The Clinical Center was honored by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation when it received the 2011 Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award on Sept. 23.

Also honored were two former grantees of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, who won this year’s Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award. Drs. Franz-Ulrich Hartl and Arthur L. Horwich were cited “for discoveries concerning the cell’s protein-folding machinery, exemplified by cage-like structures that convert newly made proteins into their biologically active forms.”

Hundreds of researchers, health care providers and patients from across the U.S. came to NIH for NIAMS’s 25th anniversary scientific symposium held in Lipsett Amphitheater.

The Clinical Center was honored “for serving since its inception as a model research hospital.” It has ministered to nearly 450,000 patients since opening, according to the Lasker Foundation.

Photo: Ernie Branson

The award to the Clinical Center took note of its global reach (149 countries represented), breadth of illnesses under study (575 unique conditions) and record of achievement since it opened almost 60 years ago. The Undiagnosed Diseases Program, which began in 2008 at the CC, also earned recognition as a new venture extending a tradition of research excellence.

“Since 1953, the Clinical Center has provided innovative therapy and high-quality patient care, treated rare and severe diseases and produced outstanding physician-scientists whose collective work has set a standard of excellence in biomedical research,” read the award citation. “It has spearheaded major advances in a wide array of medical arenas, established an example for academic institutions across the world, and trained thousands of investigators, many of whom now lead those establishments.”

The Clinical Center, the world’s largest clinical research hospital, “exists to help scientists who are clinicians rapidly translate promising discoveries in the laboratory into new and better ways to treat and prevent disease,” said NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, adding that its research portfolio “has resulted in remarkable medical advances.”

Those medical milestones include development of chemotherapy for cancer; the first use of an immunotoxin to treat a malignancy (hairy cell leukemia); identification of the genes that cause kidney cancer, leading to the development of 6 new, targeted treatments for advanced kidney cancer; the demonstration that lithium helps depression; the first gene therapy; the first treatment of AIDS (with AZT); and the development of tests to detect AIDS/HIV and hepatitis viruses in blood, which led to a safer blood supply.

“The Clinical Center’s work has always depended on patients and healthy individuals from around the world who volunteer for clinical research here,” said CC director Dr. John Gallin, who has led the hospital since May 1994. “Our patients include those with rare diseases, common disorders and undiagnosed conditions. There are about 1,500 clinical research studies under way today and the patients and healthy volunteers who participate in them are true partners in research.”

Former grantees Hartl, of the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, and Horwich, of Yale School of Medicine, identified chaperonin, which shifted the paradigm of how proteins fold.

Much of the work in a cell is accomplished by proteins. But for these molecules to do their jobs, they must fold into the correct 3-dimensional shapes. Horwich and Hartl showed that proteins need help to form their proper 3-dimensional structures. They identified a protein machine, which they dubbed chaperonin, that is instrumental in aiding protein folding and preventing proteins from aggregating.

They also revealed a dynamic view of the stepwise process by which chaperonin draws in and sequesters unfolded proteins and ultimately ejects them 10 seconds later, fully formed and functional.NIHRecord Icon

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