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UC Berkeley cell biologist receives Lasker Award for cell secretion research important to biotech industry
22 September 2002

By Robert Sanders, Media Relations

Print-quality images available for download

BERKELEY - 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 Award.

 

Randy Schekman

Schekman's journey to discovery:

"When 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 >

 

     

Schekman, 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).

The Lasker 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.

Schekman 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.

"Ten 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.

Various diseases, 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.

"Our 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.

Print-quality images available for download


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