UC Berkeley molecular biologist Robert Tjian is awarded GM prize in cancer research

By Public Affairs

DETROIT -- Robert Tjian, PhD, professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, has been recognized by the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation for his major contributions to cancer research.

Dr. Tjian and co-winner Robert G. Roeder, PhD, of New York's Rockefeller University were cited for their discoveries on the mechanism and regulation of gene transcription in eukaryotic cells. They will share the Foundation's Alfred P. Sloan Prize, which honors the most outstanding recent basic science contribution to cancer research, during a ceremony at the U. S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on June 9.

With a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology, Dr. Tjian began his scientific career studying how cells live.

"Part and parcel of this type of research is understanding how cells go wrong," he said from his Berkeley, Calif. laboratory. "That's a big part of understanding disease -- particularly a disease like cancer."

Dr. Samuel A. Wells Jr., President of the GM Cancer Research Foundation, called Dr. Tjian an exemplary scientist and a worthy recipient of the Sloan Prize.

"The selection of awardees follows a rigorous review process conducted by a panel of prestigious international scientists," he said.

Dr. Tjian expects that the next five to ten years will bring significant breakthroughs in the areas of breast cancer and prostate cancer, due in part to the type of research his laboratory conducts.

"Our research focuses on the root mechanisms that affect all cancers," he explained. "Others will use our data to come up with better diagnostics and treatments."

While his interest in the disease evolved out of scientific curiosity, it has extended into his personal life as well.

"Several women in my family have had breast cancer," he said, "and I have two daughters. Like most people, I have a personal stake in this research."

In the last decade, Dr. Tjian has further channeled his interest and expertise into the start-up of a biotechnology company to study products for a range of medical conditions. He expects to see results soon.

"Ironically, although we didn't set it up to do this, our first product is likely to be a cancer product."

Born in Hong Kong in 1949, the youngest of nine children, Dr. Tjian has gone on to become one of the premier researchers in his field.

"It gives me great pride to have ushered so many students into medical careers, and to watch my students and post-doctoral fellows develop into first rate scientists," he said.

Cancer research is a key philanthropic priority for General Motors. As part of this commitment, the automaker established the GM Cancer Research Foundation (GMCRF) in 1978 to recognize the outstanding accomplishments of basic scientists and clinical scientists in cancer research around the world.

"We believe strongly in giving back to the community," said John F. Smith, Jr., Chairman and CEO of General Motors. "Through these awards, we hope to bring some of the world's most gifted scientists just that much closer to curing, treating and preventing cancer in the future."

The awards, valued at $250,000 each, are among the most prestigious in the field of medicine. To date, GMCRF has awarded over $9 million to 83 scientists, in an effort to focus worldwide scientific and public attention on cancer research. Seven winners have subsequently won Nobel prizes.

Past laureates include E. Donnall Thomas, M.D., who developed the technique of bone marrow transplantation; J. Christopher Wagner, M.D., who discovered the link between asbestos exposure and lung cancer; and Samuel Shapiro, B.S. and Philip Strax, M.D., who demonstrated the importance of mammograms in improving survival in women with breast cancer.

In addition to Dr. Tjian and Dr. Roeder, 1999 laureates include Charles F. Kettering Prize Winner Ronald Levy, M.D. of Stanford University and Charles S. Mott Prize winner Arnold J. Levine, Ph.D. of The Rockefeller University.

The Kettering Prize recognizes the most outstanding recent contribution to the diagnosis or treatment of cancer, while the Mott Prize recognizes the most outstanding recent contribution to the discovery of the cause or ultimate prevention of human cancer.

The four laureates will receive their awards at a ceremony that concludes GMCRF's Annual Scientific Conference, June 8-9 at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. The conference, which focuses on genetic instability and cancer, will include lectures by this year's prize winners describing their research.

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