NYU School of Medicine awards 3 biomedical researchers

March 27, 2009

NEW YORK, NY (March 27, 2009) --The NYU School of Medicine Biotechnology Study Center will recognize three outstanding pioneers in the field of biotechnology next month at its annual awards symposium:

Mark S. Ptashne, of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, for his pioneering work on the lamda phage repressor, key to a molecular switch that controls gene transcription, a discovery that forms the basis for much of modern biotechnology.

Leonard P. Guarente, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his discovery of sirtuins, key regulators of longevity in living creatures. Activation of sirtuins by resveratrol, a compound found in red wine, has led to trials of its analogues as scientists search for the key to a longer life.

John R. David, of the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School for the discovery and cloning of the first cytokine (a soluble molecule released during immune reactions), as well as for his work applying modern immunology to the study of global disease.

Since 2000, the Dart/NYU Biotechnology Achievement Awards have recognized the integral role of pure science in the development of pharmaceuticals by honoring scientists whose work has led to major advances in patient care. Past recipients include J. Craig Venter for his discovery of The Human Genome and NYU Alumnus and scientist Steven Shak for his work on the cancer drug, Herceptin at Genentech.

"These awards recognize the highest level of innovation in the field of biotechnology and molecular biology, not only for the basic disciplines but applications in the clinic," stated Dr. Gerald Weissman, research professor of medicine in the division of rheumatology and Director of the Biotechnology Study Center. "Previous winners have gone on to become Nobel Laureates and been instrumental in helping to develop the foundations of modern molecular biology."

Dr. Gerald Weissmann will chair the awards symposium on April 6, 2009. The symposium is co-sponsored by the NYU School of Medicine's Honors Program and will feature presentations by each of the awardees. The Biotechnology Study Center serves as an academic center for the study of biotechnology as a means of impacting public health.

Since 2004, the awards have been aided by a generous grant from Dart Neuroscience LLC and are awarded on behalf of the Fellows of the Center at The Biotechnology Center.


In Basic Biotechnology: Mark S. Ptashne, PhD, Ludwig Chair of Molecular Biology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, showed that a bacterial protein (the lambda phage repressor) binds to specific sites on DNA and controls the expression (transcription) of genes. The simple protein-protein and protein-DNA interactions he analyzed combine to form a complex 'genetic switch'. The basic mechanisms he discovered underlie gene regulation in higher organisms as well, and switches similar to the one he described are found in all developing organisms. His later work has shown that the same kinds of interactions that regulate gene transcription are also used to regulate a wide array of other processes involving enzymes including polymerases, kinases, phosphatases, ubiquitylases, proteases, and so on. The picture that emerges describes how evolution can rather readily use the same enzymes to produce a fly and a human, and suggests the nature of the mutations that lead to cancer. A scientific co-founder of Genetics Institute and of Acceleron, Mark Ptashne is a member of the NAS, and has received numerous national and international awards including the Lasker, Gairdner, and Louisa Gross Horwitz Awards. In addition to his many research papers, Ptashne has written two influential books: A Genetic Switch (now in its third edition) and Genes and Signals (co-authored with Alex Gann). He is also an accomplished violinist.

In Applied Biotechnology: Leonard P. Guarente, PhD, Novartis Professor of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pioneered in 1980, along with Mark Ptashnemodern, techniques for expressing eukaryotic genes in bacteria. Moving to studies of aging in eukaryotic organisms, Guarente found that increased activity of enzyme controlling DNA/histone interactions (the Sir2 protein) slows aging in yeast by forming a gene-silencing complex. Based on the discovery that SIRT2 is a key regulator of longevity in both yeast and worms, Guarente postulated that this highly-conserved gene also governs longevity in mammals. Guarente showed SIRT2 to be the founding member of the Sirtuin family of NAD-dependent histone deacetylase enzymes. Activation of SIRT1 in mammals triggers physiological changes seen during life-extension by caloric restriction and, perhaps, ingestion of resveratrol, a compound found in red wine. The sirtuins control such diverse functions as intermediary metabolism, circadian rhythms, stress responses, insulin sensitivity etc. Dr. Guarente is founder of Elixir Pharmaceuticals, and is on the board of Sirtris, which recently announced positive clinical trial results with a proprietary formulation of resveratrol in patients with Type 2 Diabetes. Dr. Guarente is author of the book "Ageless Quest" and editor of "Molecular Biology of Aging", both published by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.

NYU Biotechnology Faculty/Alumnus Award: John R. David, MD, the Richard Pearson Strong Professor of Tropical Public Health, Emeritus at the Harvard School of Public Health and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, is a pioneer in two complex fields that he himself joined together: the immunobiology of cytokines and the control of parasitic infections, especially leishmaniasis. While on the faculty of NYU School of Medicine, and in the course of experiments with Lewis Thomas and H. Sherwood Lawrence, he was the first to describe "a cell-free substance formed by lymphoid cell-antigen interaction," migration inhibitory factor (MIF), the first "lymphokine" (1966). He then moved to Harvard, where he isolated, cloned and produced the first recombinant MIF. He has continued to explore the biological role of the 12kD recombinant protein, now called a "cytokine" in innate and acquired immunity, especially by the production and use of mice that lack the MIF gene (MIF knock outs). These mice are resistant to endotoxin shock and to many mouse models of human auto immunity diseases including those for MS, Crohns disease, arthritis, type 2 diabetes and atherosclerosis. The MIF knockout mice are resistant to gram negative bacteria but susceptible to microorganisms such as M. tuberculosis and Leishmania. His studies on leishmaniasis in Brazil further defined the importance of dogs as reservoir hosts for visceral leishmaniasis (VL), which led to the development of new control strategy for VL. He further showed that a single application of heat therapy was a successful treatment for cutaneous leishmaniasis in trials in Brazil and Afghanistan. Dr. David is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Medicine of the NAS.
About NYU Langone Medical Center

Located in the heart of New York City, NYU Langone Medical Center is one of the nation's premier centers of excellence in health care, biomedical research, and medical education. For over 167 years, NYU physicians and researchers have made countless contributions to the practice and science of health care. Today the Medical Center consists of NYU School of Medicine, including the Smilow Research Center, the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine, and the Sackler Institute of Graduate Biomedical Sciences; the three hospitals of NYU Hospitals Center, Tisch Hospital, a 726-bed acute-care general hospital, Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, the first and largest facility of its kind, and NYU Hospital for Joint Diseases, a leader in musculoskeletal care; and such major programs as the NYU Cancer Institute, the NYU Child Study Center, and the Hassenfeld Children's Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders.

About the NYU School of Medicine Biotechnology Study Center

The NYU School of Medicine Biotechnology Study Center brings together an extraordinary group of biomedical scientists, social scientists, legal experts, and business leaders, who are among the top influencers in their fields. The Center was established in 2000 by Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Research Professor of Medicine at NYU School of Medicine and Director of the Biotechnology Study Center, and Nobel laureates Sir John Vane of the William Harvey Research Institute, and Bengt Samuelsson of the Karolinska Institute, among others. The Biotechnology Center serves as an academic center for the study of biotechnology as a means of impacting public health.

NYU Langone Medical Center / New York University School of Medicine

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