Rudolf Jaenisch receives Max Delbrück Medal

December 1, 2006

Tags: Jaenisch LabAwards + Announcements

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Whitehead Member and MIT professor of biology Rudolf Jaenisch has been awarded the Max Delbrück Medal for his research on epigenetic mechanisms of gene regulation.

Epigenetics refers to ways a cell can alter how a gene is read without actually changing the gene’s DNA sequence.

Jaenisch often explains epigenetics by comparing it to grammar. For example, while the sentence “tobeornottobethatisthequestion” is barely legible, “To be or not to be; that is the question” is perfectly clear. None of the letters has changed, but the punctuation has. In the same way, the cell will often add certain chemical punctuation marks to DNA that alter how the cell will interpret a given gene.

These markers play a vital role in development and can lead to disease if they malfunction. Jaenisch has published a number of papers demonstrating the importance of epigenetics for understanding cancer and certain neurological conditions such as Rett Syndrome.

A deeper understanding of epigenetics may also one day help solve much of the controversy surrounding stem cell research.

In order to create a customized cell that could treat a patient without any danger of immune system rejection, researchers would need to take a mature cell from that patient, transplant it into an enucleated egg, and trick the egg into thinking it’s been fertilized. Once the egg forms into a blastocyst (an early-stage embryo), researchers conceivably might remove stem cells from this embryo and culture them into a desired cell type for therapeutic purposes. This procedure, called therapeutic cloning, has succeeded in mice but has yet to be demonstrated in people. Nevertheless, it holds tremendous promise for treating many conditions such as diabetes, Parkinson’s and heart disease.

Because such a process necessitates destroying the embryo, it is controversial. As a result, Jaenisch is investigating the process by which the egg reprograms the donated cell’s nucleus back to an embryonic state, with the hope of one day mimicking the egg’s strategies in the lab. The egg does this not through any sort of genetic means, but through epigenetic manipulation. If Jaenisch’s research goal is ever realized, embryonic stem cell therapies would not require destroying an embryo.

Jaenisch has received numerous awards, including the Boehringer Mannheim Molecular Bioanalytics Prize in 1996, the first Peter Gruber Foundation Award in Genetics in 2001, and the Robert Koch Prize in 2002. In addition, he is a Member of the National Academy of Sciences and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Awarded annually since 1992, the Max Delbrück Medal is presented to outstanding scientists during the “Berlin Lectures on Molecular Medicine,” which the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine organizes together with other Berlin research institutions and the Ernst Schering Research Foundation. This year’s event, during which Jaenisch will receive the award, is on December 1. The Center is a national research laboratory of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers and is named after the renowned biologist and Nobel Prize laureate Max Delbrück.

Jaenisch is the third Whitehead Member to receive this honor, following Robert Weinberg (1992) and Eric Lander (2001).

Past recipients of the Max Delbrück Medal are:

    • 2005 Tom Rapoport, Harvard Medical School
    • 2004 Victor J. Dzau, Duke University
    • 2003 Ronald D. G. McKay, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)
    • 2002 Roger Y. Tsien, Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the University of California at San Diego
    • 2001 Eric S. Lander, Whitehead Institute
    • 2000 Joan Argetsinger Steitz, Yale University
    • 1999 Paul Berg, Stanford University (Nobel Laureate in Chemistry 1980)
    • 1998 Svante Pääbo, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
    • 1997 Charles Weissmann, University of Zurich
    • 1996 Robert A. Weinberg, Whitehead Institute
    • 1995 Jean-Pierre Changeux, Pasteur Institute
    • 1994 Sydney Brenner, University of Cambridge (Nobel Prize Laureate in Medicine 2002)
    • 1993 No award given
    • 1992 Günter Blobel, Rockefeller University (Nobel Prize in Medicine 1999)

For the Max Delbrück Center news release visit

Written by David Cameron.


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