Victor Ambros wins Keio Medical Science Prize

By Mark L. Shelton and Bryan Goodchild

UMass Medical School Communications

September 10, 2013

The 18th Keio Medical Science Prize has been awarded to Victor R. Ambros, PhD, the Silverman Chair in Natural Science and professor of molecular medicine; and Shigekazu Nagata, PhD, professor of medical chemistry in the Graduate School of Medicine at Kyoto University.

Keio University annually awards the Keio Medical Science Prize “to recognize researchers who have made an outstanding contribution to the field of medicine or life sciences.”

It is the only prize of its kind awarded by a Japanese university, and six previous winners have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

Keio Medical Science Prize Laureates will receive a certificate of merit, a medal and a monetary award at a ceremony and lecture in Tokyo on Nov. 27.

“Victor Ambros is richly deserving of this important recognition,” said Chancellor Michael F. Collins. “His initial discovery of microRNA dramatically changed the traditional understanding of the regulation of gene expression and opened up an exciting new field of research. Around the world, scientists are energetically pursuing new paths of inquiry based on Victor’s discoveries with the goal of new therapies for disease. I congratulate him on this exceptional honor.”

“I feel deeply honored to be selected for the Keio Medical Science Prize,” said Dr. Ambros. “It is particularly gratifying that the selection committee has chosen to highlight a discovery that emerged from basic sciences research using the nematode C. elegans. Our research was conducted with the aim of achieving a better understanding of the genetic mechanisms that regulate the timing of events in animal development. The discovery of the microRNA product of the gene lin-4 was a serendipitous result of those studies. I hope that this award will help to encourage other life scientists that by following their curiosity, they will be led towards novel and unexpected landscapes of knowledge.”

Ambros discovered microRNAs (miRNAs) in 1993, while studying the molecular genetics of C. elegans. His group cloned the lin-4 gene, which affects the timing of developmental events by regulating a protein called “lin-14.” But in a surprise, lin-4’s gene product turned out not to be a protein at all, but instead a small (22-nucleotide) RNA. Further work determined that lin-4 regulates lin-14 translation via a direct RNA-RNA interaction.

Thousands of miRNAs have since been found, including in humans, and miRNAs are shown to be linked to many diseases, including cancer and neurological diseases. The application of miRNAs to target disease genes and the technology to block action of miRNAs are emerging as new therapeutic approaches.

“The world has taken notice of the landmark discoveries made by Professor Ambros, as the prestigious Keio Prize demonstrates,” said Terence R. Flotte, MD, the Celia and Isaac Haidak Professor of Medicine, executive deputy chancellor, provost, dean of the School of Medicine and professor of pediatrics. “The impact of his discovery of miRNA is still reverberating in every corner of the scientific community.”

In 1994, Mitsunada Sakaguchi, a 1940 alumnus of Keio University’s School of Medicine, donated five billion yen to Keio University with the expressed desire that it be used to commend outstanding researchers, to encourage medical research and its creative progress at Keio through grants, and to promote worldwide medical advances.

The Keio Medical Science Prize gives recognition to the outstanding and creative achievements of researchers in the fields of medicine and life sciences, in particular those contributing to scientific developments in medicine. It aims to promote worldwide advances in life sciences and medicine, to encourage the expansion of researcher networks throughout the world, and to contribute to the well-being of humankind.

Eighty Japanese academics and researchers within and outside Keio University select laureates through a rigorous review process.

The 2012 Prize was awarded to Steven A. Rosenberg of the National Cancer Institute and Hiroyuki Mano of Jichi Medical University.

Nobel Laureates who first won the Keio Prize include Jules A. Hoffmann (The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2011), Thomas A. Steitz (The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2009), Roger Y. Tsien (The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2008), Barry J. Marshall (The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2005), Elizabeth Helen Blackburn (The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2009) and Stanley B. Prusiner (The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1997).

“I am grateful to the selection committee for awarding me the Keio Medical Science Prize, by which I was greatly honored. This award recognizes our 25 years’ efforts to understand the molecular mechanism of apoptosis, and its physiological and pathological roles. I have been fortunate to share a number of exciting results with many talented colleagues in Osaka Bioscience Institute, Osaka University, and Kyoto University,” said Dr. Nagata.