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Recipients of Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine Announced

Albany, N.Y., March 16, 2011—Three scientists whose pioneering work in isolating human stem cells holds great promise for the future of medicine have been named the recipients of the 11th annual Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research. They are:

Elaine Fuchs, Ph.D., the Rebecca C. Lancefield Professor, head of the Laboratory of Mammalian Cell Biology and Development, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at The Rockefeller University in New York City;

James A. Thomson, V.M.D., Ph.D., director of regenerative biology at the Morgridge Institute for Research in Madison, Wis. and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health and the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara;

Shinya Yamanaka, M.D., Ph.D., director and professor of the Center for iPS Cell Research and Applications at Kyoto University in Japan and senior investigator at the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease in San Francisco.

The co-recipients of the prize were announced today by James J. Barba, president and chief executive officer of Albany Medical Center and chairman of the National Selection Committee. The scientists will receive the prize on May 13 during a celebration in Albany, N.Y. The $500,000 Prize is the largest award in medicine and science in the United States.

“Diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, spinal cord injury. The solutions to these debilitating diseases and many, many others that plague humans might very well be found through the science of stem cells. That’s how important the research of Drs. Fuchs, Thomson and Yamanaka is,” said Barba. “Their discoveries have moved us closer to realizing the regenerative and potentially healing properties of stem cells. Their work has been widely publicized within the scientific stem cell community, and lies as a basis for new discoveries being made every day. We commend these three pioneers and honor them for their extraordinary contributions.”

The Albany Medical Center Prize was established in 2000 by the late Morris “Marty” Silverman to honor scientists whose work has “demonstrated significant outcomes that offer medical value of national or international importance.” A $50 million gift commitment from the Marty and Dorothy Silverman Foundation provides for the prize to be awarded annually for 100 years.

Collectively, the work of Drs. Fuchs, Thomson, and Yamanaka has paved the way toward realizing the vast potential of stem cells to treat or reverse diseases and conditions, as well as to help society better understand how human tissues develop and function. Known as “regenerative science,” the science of stem cell research focuses on the earliest stage of cellular development. Also called pluripotent or “blank slate” cells, these remarkable cells have the ability to become any tissue in the body and to reproduce indefinitely. Harnessing the power of these cells is the goal of researchers seeking to someday build new spinal cord cells or even grow new limbs.

Drs. Yamanaka and Thomson are credited with discovering how to genetically re-program adult human cells back to an embryonic state. These so-called iPS (induced pluripotent stem) cells, which share nearly all the characteristics of embryonic stem cells (ES), also can be made in limitless supply. This discovery, made separately in each researcher’s lab and reported in 2007, was hailed as a major scientific breakthrough. These cell lines are now used in laboratories worldwide and promise to speed the progress of stem cell research by offering a complementary or alternative approach to using actual embryonic stem cells.

Before his success with iPS cells, Dr. Thomson was already a leader in the field of stem cell research. In the early 1990s, his laboratory derived embryonic stem cells from primates, leading to the landmark 1998 isolation and growth in culture of the first line of human ES cells. The ES cell lines he developed remain in use today in research labs throughout the world, and his own lab remains a leader in their application, including the development of new approaches to genetically manipulate these cells.

According to Robert Golden, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Dr. Thomson’s work over the last decade has been integral to establishing human ES cells and human iPS cells as standard model systems for understanding the development and function of the human body both in terms of its composite systems and as an integrated whole.”

Prior to the discovery of iPS cells, Dr. Yamanaka, who trained in Japan as an orthopedic surgeon, had worked on embryonic stem cells for a decade, which led him to his research of nuclear reprogramming of somatic cells. In 2006, to the surprise of the scientific community, he reported that he had genetically re-programmed adult cells in mice into an embryonic state. That was followed by the 2007 discovery of human iPS cells, which he produced using human skin cells.

Currently, Dr. Yamanaka is collaborating with other researchers in Japan to develop a method for iPS cell generation that would be safe for therapeutic use, including conducting safety testing of iPS cell-based treatments in a primate model of disease; preparing for the establishment of an iPS cell bank; and studying pathology and drug screening using disease-specific iPS cell lines.

“The growth of activity in the field since the initial discovery less than three years ago is staggering and there is no question that reprogramming technology is set to revolutionize basic biological investigations; the understanding of disease mechanisms; and the development of new, safe and effective therapeutics and future stem cell-based therapies,” said Robert W. Mahley, M.D., Ph.D., president-emeritus of The J. David Gladstone Institutes and professor of pathology and medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

While society tends to think of stem cell science as a science of the future, there are treatments dating back 30 years that use stem cell science as their basis. Blood stem cells have been successfully used in bone marrow transplants while culturing stem cells from the cornea in the eye has led to successful treatments for blindness. For Dr. Fuchs, the inspiration for her research came when she was a post-doctoral cell biologist in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology laboratory of Dr. Howard Green, who was culturing skin stem cells for use in the treatment of burn patients.

Dr. Fuchs’ subsequent work has focused on the biology of stem cells. “In order to use stem cells to our advantage therapeutically, we need to understand how they operate on a very basic, molecular level,” she says. Specifically, Fuchs’ expertise involves skin and hair, both of which develop from a single type of skin stem cell. Her breakthroughs in understanding how these stem cells make skin and hair and how they repair wounds have led her laboratory to the genetic bases of human skin disorders, including cancers.

According to Ralph Steinman, M.D., senior physician at The Rockefeller University and a 2009 recipient of the Albany Medical Center Prize, “Fuchs’ applications of the basic science of skin and its stem cells have had a major impact on our understanding of human genetic diseases of the skin. Throughout her career, she has consistently created new approaches to solving problems that have previously impeded the development of her field. She has also devised sophisticated methods to contribute, in original and effective ways, to the ensuing advances that have bridged basic science and medicine.”

Dr. Fuchs is widely credited with developing reverse genetics techniques that have made stem cell and genetic research easier for all scientists.

All three researchers have extensively published research and have been cited by countless medical and scientific journals. They have received numerous other prestigious national and international awards and honors.

For more information on the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, detailed biographies and photos of this year’s recipients, go to: www.amc.edu/Academic/AlbanyPrize.

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*Questions & Comments:

Sue Ford
Extension: (518) 262 - 3421
  fords@mail.amc.edu



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