UCSF biochemist wins prestigious prize

December 22, 2011

Peter Walter, PhD, a professor in the Biochemistry and Biophysics Department within the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco has been awarded the 2012 Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize for his "outstanding research achievements in the field of cell biology."

The €100,000 German award specifically recognizes Walter's work over the last two decades on how cells cope with stress--insight that has profound implications for understanding and treating numerous human diseases, including cancer, diabetes, cystic fibrosis and neurodegenerative disorders.

The prize will be awarded in a ceremony in St. Paul's Church in Frankfurt on March 14, the birthday of immunologist Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915), a German scientist who was a towering figure in medicine at the beginning of the 20th century.

"This prize is one of the top international awards given every year for medical research, and it is a wonderful recognition of Dr. Walter's work," said Sam Hawgood, Dean of the UCSF School of Medicine. "His research captures the best this field has to offer--fundamental science revealing life's mysteries at its smallest scale and with huge implications for human health worldwide."

Past recipients have included Walter's UCSF colleagues Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, who won the prize in 2009, and Stanley Prusiner, MD, who won the award in 1995. Both Blackburn and Prusiner also won the Nobel Prize for their work.

Over the last 18 years, Walter and his colleagues have investigated an intracellular process known as the unfolded protein response, which multi-celled organisms use to deal with stress and avoid poisoning their own tissues.

The unfolded protein response regulates the processing of proteins, which all cells produce in great abundance. Some secretory cells in the body make and release the equivalent of their own weight in proteins every single day.

Protein production is tightly controlled, however, to ensure that the body does not poison itself by releasing toxic proteins that are not processed correctly. The unfolded protein response is one of the main ways cells maintain this control.

Basically, explained Walter, "The unfolded protein response makes life and death decisions for the cell."

Those decisions happen in an involuted compartment found within cells known as the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), which can be thought of as a cell's warehouse and way station rolled into one. The vast majority of all the proteins a cell produces are assembled, processed, and packaged there, and the ER ensures that proteins are folded correctly into their final shape and that no misfolded, and potentially malfunctioning and toxic, proteins are released into surrounding tissues.

The ER warehouse can become overworked and too crowded at times, putting stress on cells. When stressed, cells can exercise a sort of nuclear option, switching on a program known as apoptosis and killing themselves. The unfolded protein response is a fail-safe switch in this mechanism. It can pull a cell back from the edge by making more ER, expanding capacity for more proteins to fold properly, thereby relieving the stress.

A few years ago Walter discovered the lynchpin in the process, a protein known as IRE1. This protein is a molecular detector in the ER that gauges when things become too crowded and triggers cell changesthat expand ER space.

This process can also go awry, and when it does, it can lead to a number of different diseases, including cancer. In multiple myeloma, for instance, IRE1 appears to go haywire and the cancer cells "forget how to die," as Walter described it.

Blocking the IRE1 protein with small molecules may help people with this form of cancer, he said--a therapeutic possibility that Walter and his colleagues are actively pursuing.

"The Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize is particularly special to all of us in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at UCSF because it is an award in the field of medicine that has been conferred upon one of our celebrated basic scientists," said Graeme Davis, PhD, Albert Bowers Professor at UCSF and Chair of the Department of Biochemistry & Biophysics.

"Tackling fundamental questions with direct relevance to human health is something that we all aspire to," Davis added.
-end-
BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

A native of Berlin, Peter Walter, 57, studied chemistry as an undergraduate at the Free University of Berlin and obtained a Master of Science degree in organic chemistry from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, on a German Academic Exchange Service grant. From 1977 to 1981, he conducted doctoral research at the Rockefeller University in New York in the laboratory of Nobel laureate Günter Blobel. He was named assistant professor at Rockefeller University in 1982 and came to UCSF a year later, joining the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics.

Since 1997, Walter has been an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He is also a member of several prestigious scientific societies, including the German Academy of Natural Scientists Leopoldina, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the European Molecular Biology Organization. He is a co-author of the textbook Molecular Biology of the Cell, one of the most world's most widely used standard works in the field of cell biology. Among his many awards are the Eli Lilly Award in Biological Chemistry, the Passano Award, the Searle Scholar Award, the Alfred P. Sloan Jr. Prize, the Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences, the Stein & Moore Award and the Otto Warburg Medal.

ABOUT THE PRIZE

The Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize honors scientists whose research has furthered understanding within Paul Ehrlich's fields of interest, especially immunology, cancer research, hematology, microbiology and chemotherapy. The award will be presented by Prof. Wilhelm Bender, chairman of the Trustees of the Paul Ehrlich Foundation, together with a representative of the Federal Ministry of Health. The prize, awarded since 1952, has been financed by the Federal Ministry of Health through earmarked donations from companies and the Association of Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies.

UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care.



More Information:

Walter Laboratory Home Page and Biography:
http://walterlab.ucsf.edu/
http://www.hhmi.org/research/investigators/walter_bio.html

Recent Review Paper by Dr. Walter on the Unfolded Protein Response:
http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1209038

Free Article on Discovery of the Unfolded Protein Response:
http://www.molbiolcell.org/content/21/1/15.long

UCSF Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics:
http://biochemistry.ucsf.edu/

Walter Wins Gairdner International Award
http://www.ucsf.edu/news/2009/04/8319/walter-wins-gairdner-international-award

University of California - San Francisco

Related Cancer Articles from Brightsurf:

New blood cancer treatment works by selectively interfering with cancer cell signalling
University of Alberta scientists have identified the mechanism of action behind a new type of precision cancer drug for blood cancers that is set for human trials, according to research published in Nature Communications.

UCI researchers uncover cancer cell vulnerabilities; may lead to better cancer therapies
A new University of California, Irvine-led study reveals a protein responsible for genetic changes resulting in a variety of cancers, may also be the key to more effective, targeted cancer therapy.

Breast cancer treatment costs highest among young women with metastic cancer
In a fight for their lives, young women, age 18-44, spend double the amount of older women to survive metastatic breast cancer, according to a large statewide study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Cancer mortality continues steady decline, driven by progress against lung cancer
The cancer death rate declined by 29% from 1991 to 2017, including a 2.2% drop from 2016 to 2017, the largest single-year drop in cancer mortality ever reported.

Stress in cervical cancer patients associated with higher risk of cancer-specific mortality
Psychological stress was associated with a higher risk of cancer-specific mortality in women diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Cancer-sniffing dogs 97% accurate in identifying lung cancer, according to study in JAOA
The next step will be to further fractionate the samples based on chemical and physical properties, presenting them back to the dogs until the specific biomarkers for each cancer are identified.

Moffitt Cancer Center researchers identify one way T cell function may fail in cancer
Moffitt Cancer Center researchers have discovered a mechanism by which one type of immune cell, CD8+ T cells, can become dysfunctional, impeding its ability to seek and kill cancer cells.

More cancer survivors, fewer cancer specialists point to challenge in meeting care needs
An aging population, a growing number of cancer survivors, and a projected shortage of cancer care providers will result in a challenge in delivering the care for cancer survivors in the United States if systemic changes are not made.

New cancer vaccine platform a potential tool for efficacious targeted cancer therapy
Researchers at the University of Helsinki have discovered a solution in the form of a cancer vaccine platform for improving the efficacy of oncolytic viruses used in cancer treatment.

American Cancer Society outlines blueprint for cancer control in the 21st century
The American Cancer Society is outlining its vision for cancer control in the decades ahead in a series of articles that forms the basis of a national cancer control plan.

Read More: Cancer News and Cancer Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.