Friday, November 6, 2009

In memoriam: Paul C. Zamecnik, MD


PAUL C. ZAMECNIK, MD, a renowned senior scientist in the Department of Medicine, died Oct. 27 at his home in Boston. He was 96.

"Dr. Zamecnik was one of the preeminent scientists of the 20th century and a role model for many who followed," says Dennis Ausiello, MD, chief of the Department of Medicine. "He was a man of passion and compassion, a true innovator and one of the most distinguished members of the MGH community. His many prizes distinguish the quality of his work, but the real measure of his impact came from the enthusiasm of every scientist who conversed with him, including many Nobel laureates who quite frankly felt he should have been among them for his work on protein synthesis. He will be missed but always remembered here at MGH."

Zamecnik joined the MGH in 1950 as an assistant physician and remained on staff until August 2009. He helped establish a strong focus on basic research at the hospital, serving on the Executive Committee on Research for more than 30 years and acting as chairman of the committee from 1954 to 1956.

His lengthy scientific career was marked by several major discoveries. His first major breakthroughs came in the 1950s as he elucidated the process in which proteins were made in addition to developing the first cell-free system for studying them. With the help of MGH colleague Mahlon Hoagland, MD, in 1956 Zamecnik co-discovered transfer RNA, a molecule that plays a crucial role in assembling amino acid molecules into protein chains.

In the 1970s, Zamecnik's research opened the door to a new field -- antisense technology. He is credited with developing the technique in which the growth of a virus can be halted by selectively blocking its gene expression. Laboratories around the world are now working on ways to use antisense technology against human disease.

For these significant breakthroughs, Zamecnik received numerous major awards and recognitions, including three John Collins Warren Triennial Prizes, the Presidential Medal of Science and the Albert Lasker Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science -- an award widely considered to be the American version of the prestigious Nobel Prize.

"My father worked up until the end of this past August because he wanted to press on with his scientific projects," says Zamecnik's daughter, Karen Piersen, who worked with him in his lab during the last five years. "He did not consider his scientific endeavors to be work, but pleasure – the excitement of pushing the frontier of molecular biology."

Zamecnik is survived by his three children, seven grandchildren and two great-granddaughters.

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