May 22, 2007
La Jolla, CA – Salk scientist Dr. Tony Hunter is the recipient of the 2006 Pasarow Award in Cancer Research for his key discoveries of the chemical “switch” that turns healthy cells into cancer cells.
The annual Pasarow Medical Research Awards, presented by the Los Angeles-based Robert J. and Claire Pasarow Foundation, are designed to recognize distinguished accomplishments in basic and/or clinical research while increasing public awareness of vital areas of investigation.
Also receiving Pasarow Awards are Daniel Steinberg, M.D., Ph.D., FAHA Professor and Endowed Chair at the University of California, San Diego, for cardiovascular research, and Howard Hughes Medical Investigator Dr. Huda Y. Zoghbi, a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, for research in the field of neuropsychiatry
In 1979, Dr. Hunter, an American Cancer Society professor in the Salk’s Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory, discovered that a biological process called tyrosine phosphorylation is a chemical “on-off” switch that can trigger the uncontrolled division of cells — the hallmark of many cancers. Discovery of this important signaling mechanism, which proved to be the underlying cause of many types of human cancer, revolutionized cancer research and, ultimately, led to the development of several innovative cancer therapies (e.g., Gleevec(r), Iressa(r) and Tarceva(r)), as researchers found ways to inhibit the special proteins called tyrosine kinases that are responsible for tyrosine phosphorylation.
Phosphorylation – the addition of a tiny phosphate ion to a large protein molecule – is a common way in which the body turns on or off proteins such as enzymes. Thus, phosphorylation of proteins in cells, which is often triggered by external stimuli, acts as a signaling mechanism for cells to respond to their environment, and in particular to respond to factors that promote cell proliferation. Dr. Hunter discovered that phosphorylation of tyrosine, one of the 20 amino acids found in proteins, governed how cells multiply. The special proteins that attach phosphate to tyrosine are called tyrosine kinases.
The human genome encodes 90 different tyrosine kinases, more than half of which have been implicated in cancer. Tyrosine kinase research continues to yield huge dividends as researchers pinpoint the damaged tyrosine kinase genes. These mutations lead cells down the road to cancer.
Dr. Hunter has received many other honors, including the 2005 Wolf Prize in Medicine, Israel’s top recognition for achievements in the interest of humanity, and the 2004 Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, a leading national award for scientific achievement. Dr. Hunter will receive his award, which includes a $50,000 prize, June 3 at a dinner in Los Angeles.
Former recipients of the Pasarow Award include Salk professor Dr. Ronald Evans and Salk nonresident fellow Elizabeth Blackburn, a professor at the University of California in San Francisco.
Internationally renowned for its groundbreaking basic research in the biological sciences, the Salk Institute was founded in 1960 by Dr. Jonas Salk, five years after he developed the first safe and effective vaccine against polio. The Institute’s 59 faculty members are scientific leaders in the fields of molecular biology, neurosciences and plant biology.