Berkeley cell biologist receives Lasker Award for cell secretion
research important to biotech industry
22 September 2002
Robert Sanders, Media Relations
- Many high school students dread science fair projects,
but Randy Schekman lived for them, a hint of the passion that
would drive his research for 30 years and that has earned him
the nation's highest award for basic medical research, the Lasker
journey to discovery:
I first came here, I had no plans to be a geneticist.
I was a biochemist. But I found it was the most
tractable way to begin. Define the process using
genetics, then use the genetics to bootstrap into
the molecular work. That was the game plan"
... more >
53, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University
of California, Berkeley, and an investigator in the Howard Hughes
Medical Institute, will share the 2002 Lasker Award for Basic
Medical Research with James E. Rothman of the Sloan-Kettering
Institute in New York City, the Lasker Foundation announced
today (Sunday, Sept. 22).
Awards for basic and clinical research are touted as the American
equivalent of the Nobel Prizes, and 65 Lasker Award recipients
subsequently have garnered Nobels.
The two scientists
will receive the award during a luncheon ceremony Sept. 27 at
the Pierre Hotel in New York City. They will share the podium
with Willem J. Kolff and Belding H. Scribner, who will receive
the Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research, and James E.
Darnell, who will receive the Lasker Award for Special Achievement
in Medical Science.
and Rothman separately mapped out one of the body's critical
networks, the system in all cells that shuttles hormones and
enzymes out and adds to the cell surface so it can grow and
divide. The system, which utilizes little membrane bubbles to
ferry molecules around the cell interior, is so critical that
errors in the machinery inevitably lead to death.
percent of the proteins that cells make are secreted, including
growth factors and hormones, neurotransmitters by nerve cells
and insulin from pancreas cells," Schekman said
In what some
thought was a foolish decision, Schekman decided in 1976, when
he first joined the College of Letters & Science at UC Berkeley,
to explore this system in yeast. In the ensuing years, he mapped
out the machinery by which yeast cells sort, package and deliver
proteins via membrane bubbles to the cell surface, secreting
proteins important in yeast communication and in mating. Yeast
also use the process to deliver receptors to the surface, the
cells' main way of controlling activities such as the intake
of nutrients like glucose.
In the 1980s
and 90s, these findings enabled the biotechnology industry to
exploit the secretion system in yeast to create and spit out
pharmaceutical products and industrial enzymes. Today, one quarter
of the insulin used by diabetics worldwide is produced and secreted
by yeast, and all of the hepatitis B vaccine is produced by
yeast. Both systems were developed by Chiron Corp. of Emeryville,
Calif., during the 20 years Schekman consulted for the company.
including some forms of diabetes and a form of hemophilia, involve
a hitch in the secretion system of cells, and Schekman is now
investigating a possible link to Alzheimer's disease.
findings have aided people in understanding these diseases,"
said Schekman, who heads the Chancellor's Advisory Council on
Biology and is a member of the campus's Health Sciences Initiative
— a group of several hundred researchers from many disciplines
working together to advance health care in the 21st century.
For his contributions,
he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1992 and
received the Gairdner International Award in 1996. He was elected
president of the American Society for Cell Biology in 1999.