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ILW.COM Bloggings On April 27, 2010

by Greg Siskind


The Vilcek Foundation, a foundation that "honors and supports foreign-born scientists and artists who have made outstanding contributions to society in the United States" has announced its 2010 prize winners.

The top award winner in biomedical science is Alexander Varshavsky. Russian-born Varshavsky is one of the world's leading molecular biologists. The Vilcek award biography describes his accomplishments:

Alexander Varshavsky was born to do science: his father was a scientist, his mother a physician?a case of nurture and nature combined, as he describes it. He was also born into a society whose privations suppressed many of the great scientific minds of the period. “Living in a Communist country was a psychologically difficult affair...,” he recalls. “Before managing to escape from the Soviet Union in 1977, I had some brushes with disasters that would have left me unable to become a scientist, had I not been lucky.” Still, he won a place as a student in the Chemistry Department at prestigious Moscow University, and later at the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB), where his ambition and love of science fueled his desire to excel, even as he recognized that “real” molecular biology was being done primarily in the West. In 1973, Dr. Varshavshy received his PhD, on the topic of the organization and structure of chromosomes. When some of his scientific papers found their way into Western journals, he began to receive invitations to speak abroad, but came hard up against the Soviet barriers to travel. Eventually, under circumstances worthy of a Cold War spy novel, and due to the support and efforts of fellow scientists, Dr. Varshavsky defected to the United States, where almost immediately he was offered a position at the Biology Department at MIT. He spent fifteen years there, studying first the structure and replication of chromosomes, before changing focus to the ubiquitin system, a new area of study at the time. In 1992, he moved his laboratory to California Institute of Technology (Caltech), to become the Smits Professor of Cell Biology. There, he and his colleagues continue to advance research in the field of ubiquitin and regulated protein degradation, significant to the understanding of cancer, immunity, birth defects, and many other illnesses.

The enormity of Dr. Varshavsky’s achievements is reflected in the number of awards he has received in recognition of his work: the Gairdner Award; the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research; the General Motors Sloan Prize; the Wolf Prize in Medicine; the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University, in 2001, for his research on ubiquitination; and the Wilson Medal. In 2007, he also received the first $1 million Gotham Prize for an original approach to killing cancer cells, called deletion-specific targeting (DST), which, he says, “involves finding a genuine Achilles heel of cancer cells.” Dr. Varshavsky is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. He lives with his wife, a doctor, in Pasadena, California.