Friday, October 28, 2011

Warren Triennial Prize honors visionary research

COVETED PRIZW: From left, Haber,
Jaenisch, Yamanaka and Slavin

Members of the MGH research community filled beyond capacity both the third-floor auditorium in the Simches Research Center and a nearby conference room for the Oct. 25 celebration of the 2011 Warren Triennial Prize. In commemoration of the hospital’s 200th anniversary, this year’s presentation of the MGH’s top scientific award was expanded to a daylong celebration. Honored for their contributions to cellular reprogramming were Rudolf Jaenisch, MD, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Whitehead Institute, and Shinya Yamanaka, MD, PhD, of Kyoto University and the Gladstone Institutes at the University of California, San Francisco.

In welcoming MGHers to a morning symposium entitled “From Epigenetics to Cellular Reprogramming,” Peter L.
Slavin, MD, MGH president, noted how appropriate it was that the prize was being given during the hospital’s bicentennial year, both because it is named for an MGH co-founder and because “this event truly is an opportunity for us to rededicate ourselves to our mission in research.” Symposium speakers Douglas Melton, PhD, Harvard Stem Cell Institute; Amy Wagers, PhD, Joslin Diabetes Center; Kevin Eggan, PhD, Harvard University; and Bradley Bernstein, MD, PhD, MGH Pathology, each discussed their investigations into stem cell science and regenerative medicine.

The prize ceremony – also broadcast to the O’Keeffe Auditorium, the Isselbacher Auditorium at Charlestown Navy Yard and the Whitehead Institute – began with presentations of specially cast Warren Triennial Prize medals to former recipients who were in attendance: Philip Leder, MD, Harvard University, 1980; Robert Horvitz, PhD, MIT, 1986; and Gary Ruvkun, PhD, MGH Department of Molecular Biology, 2008.

Says Horvitz, “The Warren Triennial Prize provides a striking example of the dedication of MGH to basic research, as this award has repeatedly recognized discoveries in basic biology that have proved – sometimes years later – to have a fundamental impact on the understanding and treatment of human disease.”

In their award lectures, the current recipients reviewed the sometimes indirect paths of their careers and described the work being honored with the prize: Yamanaka’s 2006 discovery of a way to convert skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which have many of the characteristics of embryonic stem cells, and Jaenisch’s extension of that work, including using iPSCs to generate animal models of illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease and sickle cell anemia. Both scientists outlined current challenges facing the field – including identifying critical characteristics of specific iPS cell lines and finding better ways to guide their differentiation – and the technology’s potential to improve understanding of important diseases and provide new therapies.

 “This award is at the very heart of MGH’s role in medical science over the past 200 years,” says Daniel Haber, MD, PhD, chair of the MGH Executive Committee on Research and director of the MGH Cancer Center. “It is a testament to the critical role of scientific discovery in medical progress, and this year’s prize winners stand out for the brilliance of their work and its implications for future medical therapies.”


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