MGH investigator Gary Ruvkun, PhD (right), is one of three co-recipients of the 2008 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research. Presented by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, the Lasker Awards are often considered the American version of the Nobel Prize, and many Lasker recipients have gone on to win the Nobel. The award will be presented Sept. 26 in New York.
Ruvkun and co-recipients – Victor Ambros, PhD, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and David Baulcombe, PhD, FRS, of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom – are being honored for their discovery that tiny molecules of RNA can control the activity of critical genes in animals and plants. Ruvkun and Ambros also are receiving the 2008 MGH Warren Triennial Prize for the same work.
The two began collaborating as postdoctoral fellows at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where they isolated a gene called lin-14, which operates in concert with a gene called lin-4 to regulate key developmental transitions in the C. elegans roundworm. As independent investigators – Ruvkun in the MGH Department of Molecular Biology and Ambros at Harvard University – they continued exploring how those genes interact and discovered that lin-4 blocks the activity of lin-14 in a manner never seen before – through direct interaction between tiny segments of the two genes' RNA strands.
In 2000, Ruvkun's team discovered let-7, another tiny regulatory RNA that shuts down its target gene in the same way and went on to show that animals from fish to flies to humans have their own versions of let-7. In the meantime, Baulcombe was finding that tiny RNAs also silenced genes in plants. It now appears that the human genome contains between 500 and 1,000 microRNAs involved in a broad range of normal and disease-related activities. Researchers have just begun exploring their potential for the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of disorders.
A member of the MGH Center for Computational and Integrative Biology, Ruvkun has continued to investigate RNA's role in controlling gene expression and is studying other mechanisms involved in the development, metabolism and longevity of C. elegans, including genes involved in the regulation and storage of fat.