The 18th Keio Medical Science Prize has been awarded to Victor R. Ambros, PhD, professor of molecular medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the Silverman Chair in Natural Science; and Shigekazu Nagata, PhD, professor of medical chemistry in the Graduate School of Medicine at Kyoto University.
Keio University annually awards the Keio Medical Science Prize "to recognize researchers who have made an outstanding contribution to the field of medicine or life sciences."
It is the only prize of its kind awarded by a Japanese university, and six previous winners have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.
Keio Medical Science Prize Laureates receive a certificate of merit, medal, and a monetary award at a ceremony and lecture in Tokyo on November 27.
"The world has taken notice of the landmark discoveries made by Professor Ambros, as the prestigious Keio Prize demonstrates," said Terence R. Flotte, MD, executive deputy chancellor, provost and dean of the school of medicine. "The impact of his discovery of miRNA is still reverberating in every corner of the scientific community."
"I feel deeply honored to be selected for the Keio Medical Science Prize," said Ambros. "It is particularly gratifying that the selection committee has chosen to highlight a discovery that emerged from basic sciences research using the nematode C. elegans. Our research was conducted with the aim of achieving a better understanding of the genetic mechanisms that regulate the timing of events in animal development. The discovery of the microRNA product of the gene lin-4 was a serendipitous result of those studies. I hope that this award will help to encourage other life scientists that by following their curiosity, they will be led towards novel and unexpected landscapes of knowledge."
Ambros first discovered microRNAs (miRNAs) in 1993, while studying the molecular genetics of C. elegans. His group cloned the lin-4 gene, which affects the timing of developmental events by regulating a protein called "lin-14." But in a surprise, lin-4's gene product turned out not to be a protein at all, but instead a small (22-nucleotide) RNA. Further work determined that lin-4 regulates lin-14 translation via a direct RNA-RNA interaction.
Thousands of miRNAs have since been found, including in humans, and miRNAs are shown to be linked to many diseases, including cancer and neurological diseases. The application of miRNAs to target disease genes and the technology to block action of miRNAs are emerging as new therapeutic approaches.
In 1994, Mitsunada Sakaguchi, a 1940 alumnus of Keio University's School of Medicine, donated five billion yen ($50 million) to Keio University with the expressed desire that it be used to commend outstanding researchers, to encourage medical research and its creative progress at Keio through grants, and to promote worldwide medical advances.