In a ceremony at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto, Canada, on October 25, Yale scientist Thomas A. Steitz, Ph.D., received one of the five 2007 Gairdner International Awards, which are among the most prestigious awards in science.
Steitz, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, was honored along with Harry F. Noller, Ph.D., the Robert L. Sinsheimer Professor of Molecular Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for their groundbreaking studies on the structure and function of the ribosome. Ribosomes are molecular machines inside cells that translate the information in messenger RNA into the amino-acid chains that form proteins.
The ribosome is an important target of antibiotic drugs, and understanding its structure points the way toward the development of new drugs for antibody-resistant diseases. “A major health consequence of the increasing number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” says Steitz, “is that two million people per year get infections from them in hospital facilities—and 90,000 per year die from them.”
With Yale colleagues Peter B. Moore, Ph.D., Sterling Professor of Chemistry, and William L. Jorgensen, Ph.D., the Conkey P. Whitehead Professor of Chemistry, and others, Steitz founded Rib-X Pharmaceuticals, a biotech company that is using knowledge of ribosomal structure to create new classes of antibiotics. In just five years, Rib-X has moved one potential compound into Phase II clinical trials.
The Gairdner Foundation was founded in 1957 by Toronto financier and industrialist James A. Gairdner, to “recognize and reward the achievements of medical researchers whose work contributes significantly to improving the quality of human life.” In announcing the awards last May, John Dirks, M.D., president and scientific director of the Gairdner Foundation, said that the prizes “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.” Of the 288 recipients, 70 have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.
Three other Yale faculty members have recently received Gairdner International Awards. In 2006, Joan A. Steitz, Ph.D., Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry (and wife of Thomas Steitz) and Thomas D. Pollard, M.D., chair and Sterling Professor of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology won the award. Two years earlier a Gairdner Award went to Arthur L. Horwich, M.D., Sterling Professor of Genetics and Pediatrics.
This year’s other three Gairdner Award winners were C. David Allis, Ph.D., the Joy and Jack Fishman Professor and head of the Laboratory of Chromatin Biology at The Rockefeller University in New York; Kim A. Nasmyth, Ph.D., Whitley Professor of Biochemistry at Oxford University in England; and Dennis J. Slamon, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.
In his keynote address at the award ceremony, Sir Paul Nurse, Ph.D., president of The Rockefeller University, Gairdner Award winner in 1992, and winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, praised this year’s recipients as “five explorer-scientists of the highest calibre: they were given the tools, they explored, and they discovered. Let us all learn from their example.”