Studying these cells could lead to new treatments for diseases ranging from gastrointestinal disease to diabetes.
Dr. H. Robert Horvitz, professor of biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, is the co-winner of one of this year's Gairdner Foundation International Awards, which reward outstanding contributions to medical science.
Professor Horvitz was honored jointly with Professor Andrew H. Wyllie of Cambridge University "in recognition of their pioneering contribution to our understanding of apoptosis, or programmed cell death."
Since its establishment in 1957 by the late James A. Gairdner to recognize outstanding contributions to medical science, the Toronto-based foundation has honored 260 scientists, 51 of whom subsequently won a Nobel Prize. Past Gairdner winners from MIT are Professors Richard O. Hynes (1997), Robert S. Langer Jr. (1996), Robert Weinberg (1992), Phillip Sharp (1986), Susumu Tonegawa (1983) and H. Gobind Khorana (1980). Professors Sharp and Tonegawa later won the Nobel Prize, while Professor Khorana had already won the Nobel in1968.
A second Gairdner Foundation International Award went to Professors Avram Hershko of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Alexander Varshavsky of Caltech, for discovering the ubiquitin system of intracellular protein degradation and its many functions in the cell.
The foundation also bestowed two Wightman Awards, given periodically to a Canadian who has demonstrated outstanding leadership in medicine and medical science. The six scientists honored by the Gairdner Foundation shared $180,000.
Drs. Horvitz and Wyllie's work focuses on the crucial balance between cell growth and death, and the disruption of that balance through the dysregulation of apoptosis. Failure to engage programmed cell death contributes to diseases such as cancer, autoimmune disorders and systemic viral infection, while excessive apoptosis can contribute to neurodegenerative diseases and other problems.
In 1986, Professor Horvitz described the genetic basis or apoptosis in development of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, discovering many of the genes controlling the process and showing that similar genes exist in humans. "Horvitz's work definitively showed that apoptosis is a genetically regulated mechanism and has subsequently led to the discovery of countless novel death-signaling pathways whose dysregulation directly contributes to human disease," the Gairdner citation read.
Professor Horvitz has been an MIT faculty member since 1978. He holds the SB (1968) in mathematics and economics from MIT and the MS (1972) and PhD (1974) in biology from Harvard. Among his many other awards and honors are election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1991, the V.D. Mattia Award from the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology in 1993, and the Passano Award and the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation's Alfred P. Sloan Medal, both in 1998.
A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 26).