July 11, 2005

France's highest scientific honor to be awarded this year to Salk Institute scientist Ronald M. Evans

Salk News

France’s highest scientific honor to be awarded this year to Salk Institute scientist Ronald M. Evans

La Jolla, CA – Ronald M. Evans, Ph.D., professor and head of the Gene Expression Laboratory of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, will receive the 2005 Grande Médaille D’Or (Grand Gold Medal), France’s highest scientific honor, for his research discovering how hormones and drugs control the body’s metabolism, development and reproduction.

Dr. Evans, the 2004 recipient of the prestigious Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, will receive the Grand Gold Medal on Nov. 15, at the French Academy of Sciences in Paris.

Previous award recipients include Louis Pasteur, Pierre and Marie Curie, Gustave Eiffel and Henri Poincare. Nobel laureate and theoretical physicist David Gross of University of California at Santa Barbara was awarded the prize last year.

A faculty member at Salk since 1978, Dr. Evans is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and holds the Salk Institute’s March of Dimes Chair in Developmental and Molecular Biology.

In 1985 Dr. Evans discovered the first blueprint of a series of genetic switches, known as receptors, that are able to control how the body uses sugar and fat. This blueprint led to the isolation of 48 related switches known as a genetic superfamily. These switches are triggered by various hormones and nutrients including vitamins A and D, testosterone and other sex steroids, cholesterol and certain herbal extracts.

Dr. Evans’ and his colleagues’ characterization of the function of the receptor family has improved our understanding of the molecular basis of obesity-related diseases such as diabetes and syndrome X, a disorder characterized by high blood pressure, heart disease and insulin resistance. Prior to Dr. Evans’ research, it was not realized that fat-soluble steroid hormones and dietary fats would use a common strategy to communicate to genes inside a cell’s nucleus. They all rely on receptor molecules inside the cell’s nucleus that function as on/off switches for genes as soon as they bind to a hormone molecule.

By illuminating the structures of the nuclear hormone receptors and the pathways that they use to signal the genes in the nucleus of the trillions of cells of the human body, Dr. Evans and his colleagues have provided a roadmap for clinical scientists to develop new, more effective and safe drugs. His gene activation technique has been deployed in nearly every pharmaceutical company and has led to the discovery, development and approval of drugs for the treatment of cancer, obesity and osteoporosis.

His lab’s research on vitamin A signaling has been key to defining the vitamin’s central role in gene regulation, embryonic development and adult physiology. It also led to drugs for the treatment of myeloid leukemia and other cancers.

Dr. Evans’ team also identified the PPARΓ and PPARΔ nuclear hormone receptors, as playing key roles in regulating the body’s storage and burning of fat. Mice that are genetically engineered to produce an overactive version of PPARΓ burn dietary fat at very high rates and have stronger slow-twitch muscle mass. When placed on a rodent-sized treadmill, these genetically engineered “marathon mice” will run twice as far as their normal counterparts.

Dr. Evans’ current research focuses on lipids derived from the fats contained in the foods that we eat, and the role of nuclear receptors in obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

About Dr. Evans:

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Dr. Evans earned the B.A. degree in bacteriology and then the Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from the University of California, Los Angeles. After completing a postdoctoral research fellowship at Rockefeller University in New York, he was recruited to the Salk Institute in La Jolla where he advanced, in just eight years, from the position of assistant professor to full professor.

Dr. Evans has received many honors in addition to the Grand Gold Medal. In the fall of 2004, he shared the Lasker Award For Basic Medical Research (also known as America’s “Nobel Prize”) with two other outstanding scientists.

Elected to the National Academy of Science, Institute of Medicine as well as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Evans is a past recipient of the California Scientist of the Year Award, General Motors Sloan Award for Cancer Research, March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology, Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Metabolic Research and the Keio Prize in Medicine.

According to the nonprofit Institute for Scientific Information, Dr. Evans’ research publications are among the most frequently cited by the scientific community worldwide.

About France’s Grand Gold Medal:

According to France’s Academy of Science, the Grand Gold Medal recognizes “a French or foreign scholar who has contributed to the development of science in a decisive way, both through the originality of his/her personal research and by his/her international presence and the stimulating influence which he/she will have had through the creation of a true school of research.”

For more information visit: http://www.academie-sciences.fr/actualites/nouvelles_gb.htm

About Salk Institute for Biological Studies:

Internationally renown for its groundbreaking basic research in the biological sciences, the Salk Institute was founded in 1960 by Dr. Jonas Salk, just five years after he developed the first safe, effective vaccine against polio. The institute’s 57-member faculty are scientific leaders in the fields of molecular biology, neurosciences and plant biology.

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