Lasker award honors discovery of cell-protein folding

The finding could help scientists develop treatments for neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

By Christine S. Moyer — Posted Sept. 27, 2011

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Two scientists who revealed how proteins fold inside cells received the 2011 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award.

Protein folding is a vital process that converts linear amino-acid chains into the three-dimensional forms that determine the molecules' function. The discovery may someday help scientists develop new treatments for neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease, Huntington's disease and Parkinson's disease, according to the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation.

The finding was made by Dr. Franz-Ulrich Hartl, PhD, a professor in the cellular biochemistry department at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried, Germany, and Arthur L. Horwich, MD, a professor of genetics and pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. They were to receive a $250,000 prize on Sept. 23 in New York.

"By unraveling the mysterious workings of these amazing [protein-folding] machines, they gave the medical world a key understanding of how proteins reach their biological potential," the foundation said.

Previously, it was believed that newly synthesized proteins in cells folded spontaneously. But in the late 1980s, Drs. Hartl and Horwich discovered that proteins dubbed "chaperones" act as a cage-like folding machine that provides a safe place for proteins to fold.

"The idea struck us that the proteins go through the membrane in an unfolded state, [but] do they then spontaneously refold after they get in the matrix space, or could their be assistance by machinery inside the mitochondria matrix?" Dr. Horwich said.

"We demonstrate that proteins imported into the mitochondria can't refold spontaneously," he said.

Also to be honored on Sept. 23 was Tu Youyou of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences in Beijing. Youyou received the 2011 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for her discovery of artemisinin, the most effective antimalarial treatment available, the foundation said.

In 2008, there were 247 million cases of malaria and nearly 1 million deaths, mostly among African children, according to the World Health Organization. An artemisinin-based drug combination is now the standard regimen for preventing malaria, the foundation said.

"Tu's insight and vision have saved millions of lives, particularly in the developing world, and continues to yield long-term medical benefits in the ongoing fight against this deadly disease," the foundation said.

A third award, the Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award, was given to the Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health for creating a research hospital where doctors develop innovative therapies and explore ways of diagnosing and treating a variety of diseases.

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