November 4, 2005
La Jolla, CA – Ronald M. Evans, Ph.D., who during his 27 years of research at the Salk Institute has made major discoveries about how hormones and drugs control the body’s metabolism, development and reproduction, has been honored with the prestigious Glenn T. Seaborg Medal, named for the Nobel laureate chemist who was an advisor to 10 U.S. Presidents.
Dr. Evans received the award on Saturday, Nov. 5, at UCLA whose Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry created the medal in 1987 to honor scientists who have made significant contributions in the field.
At the Salk Institute, Evans is a Professor and head of the Gene Expression Laboratory. He holds the March of Dimes Chair in Developmental and Molecular Biology. A Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, Evans has received many other honors, including the 2004 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research.
On Nov. 15, the French Academy of Sciences will award Evans the 2005 Grande Médaille d’Or (Grand Gold Medal), the highest scientific honor in France.
At the Salk Institute, Evans’ research has revealed that a ‘superfamily’ of nuclear receptors exist that regulate virtually every developmental and metabolic activity, from the processing of nutrients to cell division. This nuclear receptor ‘superfamily’ at present comprises about 50 transcriptional regulators that are involved in the function of thyroid hormone, testosterone and other steroid hormones and nutrients including vitamins A and D, cholesterol and certain herbal extracts.
Evans showed that nuclear receptors share a common structure, made up of two major domains: one recognizes the hormone or other ligand molecules specific for the receptor, and the other recognizes the DNA elements of target gene promoters. Prior to Evans’ research, it was not realized that fat-soluble steroid hormones and dietary fats used a common strategy – nuclear receptors – to communicate with genes inside the nucleus of cells.
Thus, Evans’ studies have established direct molecular links between nutrition, endocrine physiology and metabolic diseases such as diabetes and atherosclerosis and thereby, have improved our understanding of the molecular basis of obesity-related diseases, including syndrome X, a disorder characterized by high blood pressure, heart disease and insulin resistance.
A gene activation technique that was developed in the Evans lab has been used in nearly every pharmaceutical company to characterize receptor function and has contributed to the discovery and development of drugs for treating cancer, obesity and osteoporosis.
In describing the nuclear receptors, Evans once said they were a “family whose history is linked to the evolution of the entire animal kingdom and whose actions, by decoding the genome, span the vast diversity of biological functions from development to physiology, pathology and treatment.”
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 the discovery of drugs for the treatment of myeloid leukemia and other cancers.
Evans’ team also revealed that two distinct PPAR receptors play key roles in regulating the body’s storage and burning of fat. Their studies showed that mice that were genetically engineered to produce an overactive version of the PPAR receptor burn dietary fat at higher rates and have more slow-twitch, or endurance, muscle fibers. When tested on a rodent-sized treadmill, these genetically engineered “marathon mice” run twice as far as their normal littermates.
Elected to the National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine as well as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 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.
Seaborg, who died in 1999, headed the University of Chicago group that devised the chemical extraction processes used in the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons during WWII. For his discoveries in the chemistry of the transuranium elements, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with E. M. McMillan in 1951. He received the National Medal of Science in 1991.
A professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, for nearly 60 years, Seaborg was one of the last survivors of the Manhattan Project and the namesake of element 106 (seaborgium) of the periodic table.
Although Seaborg was the first to discover and isolate appreciable amounts of plutonium for use in atomic weapons, he became an ardent proponent of nuclear disarmament.
He was chancellor of the UC Berkeley in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy appointed him chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, a post he held for 10 years, during which he also served Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. He then was associate director-at-large of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, University Professor of Chemistry (the most distinguished title bestowed by the Regents) and chairman of the Lawrence Hall of Science.