Pioneering flu researcher wins major Imperial scientific award

03/09/04

One of the UK's leading experts on the influenza virus is this year's winner of the Ernst Chain Prize, an annual award by Imperial College London that celebrates scientific excellence.

Sir John Skehel, Director of the Medical Research Council's National Institute for Medical Research is the second recipient of the award, which was launched in 2003. He will deliver his prize lecture at Imperial on 16 March.

Funded by the Kohn Foundation, the Prize honours a career scientist who has made an original and substantive contribution in any field of science that has furthered, or is likely to further, understanding or management of human disease.

Working for the past 30 years on the influenza virus, Sir John led the team that first deciphered the molecular detail of how the flu virus latches on to and infects a cell, and subsequently how the virus evolves to stay one step ahead of the immune system.

By visualising the key viral surface protein, haemagglutinin (HA), which is responsible for docking with the target cell, Sir John was able to show how the virus fuses with the cell membrane. He found that flu virus uses a pH-controlled system, which triggers a large structural change in HA to unveil a special fusion protein that latches onto the cell. Sir John also demonstrated that this fusion process is used by viruses such as HIV, a discovery which has helped to develop antiviral drugs that interfere with this mechanism.

Most recently, Sir John led a team of MRC scientists in mapping the structure of the strain of influenza responsible for the 1918 pandemic, which globally killed more than 20 million people. Researchers at outbreak surveillance centres around the world hope that knowledge of the structure will provide valuable clues in determining whether new variants of the virus have killer potential.

Imperial's Rector Sir Richard Sykes says:

"As global monitoring centres remain on high alert, watching to see if bird flu will again 'jump' to humans and evolve so it can be transmitted between people, the achievements of this year's Ernst Chain Prize winner are a timely reminder of how far we have come in combating this deadly disease. Sir John Skehel's dedicated and brilliant effort over the past three decades has not only unlocked some of the secrets of flu, but he has also pioneered many structural biology techniques to help fellow researchers decipher how cells function."

The winner of the Ernst Chain Prize is chosen by a panel of five and receives a personal award of UKP10,000 together with a commemorative medal.

Sir Ernst Chain was jointly awarded the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, with Sir Alexander Fleming and Sir Howard Florey, for the discovery of penicillin and its curative effect in various infectious diseases. He was Professor of Biochemistry at Imperial between 1961-1973 and became a Fellow of the College in 1978. He died in 1979.

Sir John Skehel says:

"Being awarded this prize is a great honour. I'm pleased to be associated in any way with the brilliant scientists who helped usher in the antibiotic era, so receiving this award set up in the name of Ernst Chain is a particular honour for me."

The prize-giving ceremony will take place on Tuesday 16 March 2004. An opening address will be given by Imperial's Rector Sir Richard Sykes followed by a lecture delivered by Sir John on the 'Mechanism of Influenza Virus Infection'. Dr Ralph Kohn of the Kohn Foundation will present the Prize.

The event will take place at 6.00pm at Imperial's South Kensington campus. Tickets are free but must be requested in advance by emailing: amanda.cerny@imperial.ac.uk.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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