March of Dimes awards $250,000 prize to research pioneer

Dr. Varshavsky first to describe important role of ubiquitin in living cells

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. MAY 1, 2006 -- For explaining how a tiny protein plays a major role in our lives by helping to regulate many crucial processes in human cells, Alexander Varshavsky, Ph.D., has been chosen as the 2006 recipient of the March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology, to be awarded May 1 in San Francisco, California.

The March of Dimes Prize is a cash award of $250,000 and a silver medal in the design of the Roosevelt dime, in honor of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who founded the March of Dimes.

Dr. Varshavsky, the Howard and Gwen Laurie Smits Professor of Cell Biology in the Division of Biology at the California Institute of Technology, has been credited by his peers with co-founding the field of ubiquitin research and ushering it into the age of molecular genetics. His pioneering studies in the 1980s brought to light the remarkably diverse and important biological functions of the ubiquitin system.

Ubiquitin (from the Latin ubique meaning "everywhere," the source of the word "ubiquitous"), is a protein found in every cell of all living things, from yeast to human beings. It attaches itself to many other proteins in cells – specifically those proteins that have outlived their purpose, or are abnormal, or must be destroyed to regulate their levels in a cell. Ubiquitin marks these proteins for destruction by a protein-degrading molecular "machine" called the proteasome.

Dr. Varshavsky's laboratory discovered that ubiquitin plays important roles in the cell cycle, DNA repair, protein synthesis, transcriptional regulation, and responses to stress. Dr. Varshavsky and coworkers also discovered "degradation" signals in short-lived proteins, the source of ubiquitin's selectivity as well as a fundamental property of the ubiquitin system that makes it possible to remodel multi-subunit proteins by destroying them partially, "one subunit at a time." His work revealed that the regulation of cells through selective protein degradation rivals, and often surpasses in significance, the previously known regulation of cells by genes.

Today, the study of ubiquitin has implications for research into the causes of birth defects, neurodegenerative syndromes, cancer, and immune disorders. "Dr. Varshavsky's work has provided rich insight into the ubiquitin system and its crucial role in regulating living cells," said Dr. Jennifer L. Howse, president of the March of Dimes.

Dr. Varshavsky was born and educated in the former Soviet Union. In 1977, he emigrated to the United States, where he joined the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1992, after 15 years at MIT, he moved to Caltech, where his laboratory is now.

The March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology has been awarded annually since 1996 to investigators whose research has profoundly advanced the science that underlies the understanding of birth defects. The March of Dimes created the Prize as a tribute to Dr. Jonas Salk, who received March of Dimes support for his work to create a polio vaccine.

The March of Dimes Prize will be awarded to Dr. Varshavsky at a black tie dinner and ceremony on May 1 at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco. CBS sportscaster Greg Gumbel, a member of the March of Dimes national Board of Trustees, will host the ceremony.

Also on May 1, Dr. Varshavsky will deliver the eleventh annual March of Dimes Prize Lecture at the Moscone Convention Center during the 2006 Annual Meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies.

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The March of Dimes is a national voluntary health agency whose mission is to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality. Founded in 1938, the March of Dimes funds programs of research, community services, education, and advocacy to save babies and in 2003 launched a campaign to address the increasing rate of premature birth. For more information, visit the March of Dimes Web site at marchofdimes.com or its Spanish language Web site at nacersano.org.


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