UMASS MEDICAL SCHOOL RESEARCHER VICTOR AMBROS, PhD, RECEIVES GAIRDNER AND FRANKLIN AWARDS

Prestigious awards for discovery of microRNAs

April 15, 2008

WORCESTER, Mass.— University of Massachusetts Medical School Professor of Molecular Medicine Victor R. Ambros, whose discovery of microRNAs (mRNAs) opened a dramatic new world of investigation into developmental biology, will receive the 2008 Gairdner International Award, considered one of the most prestigious in science. Dr. Ambros shares the award with collaborator Gary Ruvkun, PhD, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, who made seminal discoveries about microRNAs and their functions. Ambros will be a keynote speaker at the awards luncheon today in Toronto, at which all six Gairdner Award winners will be honored.

“When we recruited Dr. Ambros to campus, we knew his presence would have a profound impact on our growing RNA community, and the Gairdner Award underscores that impact,” said Michael F. Collins, MD, interim chancellor of UMMS.  “He is an integral part of a remarkable group of RNA scientists here at UMMS who, together, are advancing our understanding of biological mechanisms and furthering the field of biomedical science.”

“microRNAs play such a fundamental role in the regulation of numerous normal cellular processes. The hope is that the discovery of mircroRNAs will open the door to a deeper understanding of complex processes such as cancer, aging, inflammatory diseases and normal growth and development. With the outstanding scientific contributions of Dr. Ambros and his colleagues at UMMS, that hope becomes much more attainable,” said Terence R. Flotte, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, provost and executive deputy chancellor of UMMS.

Ambros is widely regarded as a central figure in RNA biology for his work in identifying microRNAs, the very short (20-24 nucleotide-long) single-stranded RNA molecules that are understood to play a critical role in gene regulation. The first microRNA was discovered by Ambros and his lab in 1993 in a pathway controlling development in the nematode worm C. elegans, and at first seemed related only to a specific event in the worm’s development, and nothing more. In 2000, Gary Ruvkun at Massachusetts General Hospital, discovered a second microRNA and reported evidence that microRNAs are evolutionarily ancient. Since then, Ambros and others have identified a wide variety of genes for diverse microRNAs in animals and plants, raising new questions about gene regulation and expression.

Nationally sponsored by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Government of Canada’s agency for health research, the award recognizes “outstanding contributions by medical scientists worldwide whose work will significantly improve the quality of life.” Established in 1957 by Toronto businessman James Gairdner, the Gairdner Foundation first recognized achievements in medical science in 1959. Since that time, the Gairdner Award, dubbed the “Canadian Nobel,” has grown to become one of the most prestigious international awards in medical research. According to the Gairdner Foundation, 70 of the 288 prior winners have gone on to win a Nobel Prize.

Ambros’ UMMS colleague Craig C. Mello, PhD, who is the Blais University Chair in Molecular Medicine and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, received the Gairdner in 2005 for his work in the discovery of RNA interference with Andrew Z. Fire, PhD, of Stanford University School of Medicine. Mello and Fire later received the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the same work.

Also this week, at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Ambros and Ruvkun will receive the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Sciences for their discovery. Also recognized with them will be David C. Baulcombe, PhD, of The Sainsbury Laboratory, John Innes Centre in Norwich, England.  The three will join six other individuals being honored with Benjamin Franklin Medals. The Franklin Institute Awards, considered by many to be a precursor to the Nobel Prize, are awarded for outstanding achievements that have directly and positively impacted and enhanced the quality of human life and deepened our understanding of the universe.

The Franklin Institute Awards Program dates back to 1824, when the Institute was established to train artisans and mechanics in the fundamentals of engineering and science. Past laureates have included Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, Stephen Hawking, Francis Crick, Jacques Cousteau, Gordon Moore and Jane Goodall. 108 Franklin laureates have won 110 Nobel prizes (two recipients accepted the Nobel Prize twice) and over 50 were recognized by The Franklin Institute prior to Nobel, often decades before, for the same work. Spanning three centuries, this program is among the most widely known and effective awards programs in existence. Visit http://www.fi.edu/franklinawards/index.html for more information on the Franklin Institute Awards.

For additional information about the Gairdner International Awards, visit www.gairdner.org. The Gairdner Luncheon will be held at the Sutton Place Hotel in Toronto from 11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesday, April 15. The Gairdner Foundation will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2009 with a series of major international symposia.

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About the University of Massachusetts Medical School
The University of Massachusetts Medical School, one of the fastest growing academic health centers in the country, has built a reputation as a world-class research institution, consistently producing noteworthy advances in clinical and basic research.  The Medical School attracts more than $179 million in research funding annually, 80 percent of which comes from federal funding sources. The work of UMMS researcher Craig Mello, PhD, an investigator of the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), and his colleague Andrew Fire, PhD, then of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, toward the discovery of RNA interference was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and has spawned a new and promising field of research, the global impact of which may prove astounding. UMMS is the academic partner of UMass Memorial Health Care, the largest health care provider in Central Massachusetts. For more information, visit www.umassmed.edu.

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Contact: Alison Duffy, Office of Public Affairs and Publications, 508.856.2000, alison.duffy@umassmed.edu