University News

Alum awarded for protein research

By
Contributing Writer
Friday, September 23, 2011

Arthur Horwich ’73 MD’75 will receive the prestigious Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award today for his work on the mechanism by which primary amino acids refold to form their full protein structure.

Horwich, a professor of genetics at the Yale School of Medicine, will share the $250,000 prize with his colleague Franz-Ulrich Hartl of the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Germany. The award will be presented in New York.

Horwich said his research was inspired by the work of Nobel Laureate Christian Anfinsen, who discovered that amino acids will spontaneously refold themselves into proteins even after structural bonds are disrupted.

But Horwich discovered that proteins do not in fact fold by themselves. Instead, they require a designated structure within the cell to help them do so. The subject of Horwich’s work was OTC, a protein responsible for removing ammonia from the blood.

“Proteins are liable to having mishaps when trying to fold. These machines help them prevent that,” Horwich said. “The work of the last 15 years or so is working out the mechanism. The next challenge is finding out why there are protein folding diseases like neurodegenerative diseases and can this discovery help prevent those conditions.”

The Lasker Awards Program began in 1945. Since then, 80 award recipients have gone on to win Nobel Prizes — including 28 in the last 20 years. “The awards are really about showing the public that our investment in biomedical research is worthwhile,” said David Keegan, senior program director of the Albert Lasker Foundation.

Horwich was the valedictorian of the medical school’s class of 1975, the first to graduate after the University reopened the school.

“We were guinea pigs for a young medical school,” Horwich said. “Nobody knew the right direction for educating us, and they took such great care of us that we really got a spectacular education. … I can really owe it all my roots.”

Horwich recounted “hanging out” at the Blue Room and spending nights at the Graduate Center Bar. “It really was a wonderful time,” he said.

“I share this with everyone in the community who helped to work on this project. I really hope it leads to some advancements in clinical medicine,” he said.