Whitehead Member Susan Lindquist awarded Max Delbrück Medal

November 4, 2010

Tags: Lindquist LabAwards + Announcements

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Whitehead Institute Member Susan Lindquist has received the Max Delbrück Medal in Berlin, Germany, for her work on protein folding.

“Susan is one of the most exciting biologist of our times, and I couldn’t be more pleased for Susan that she is recognized, not just in the United States, but throughout the world for the science she conducts in our own backyard,” says Whitehead Director David Page.  “Susan brings such creativity and such energy, passion, and insight to her research, thereby enriching the scientific lives of all of the Institute.”

Using yeast as her model organism, Lindquist studies the alpha-synuclein protein that accumulates in Parkinson’s disease (PD), and how infectious prion proteins and heat shock proteins (HSPs) alter cell function and can increase a cell’s adaptability.

According to the Max Delbrück Medal Jury, “She has shown that changes in protein folding can have profound and unexpected influences in fields as wide-ranging as human disease, evolution and nanotechnology. She developed yeast strains that serve as living test tubes in which to study these disorders, unraveling how protein folding contributes to them.”

Proteins are the workhorses of the cell, but they are unable to do their job until the linear proteins fold into their proper shape. Problems with this folding process can change a protein’s function or even kill the cell or organism. Over her career, Lindquist has used yeast models to study how protein folding can go awry and damage cells.

Lindquist recently used a yeast model to link the genetic and environmental causes of PD and find potential therapeutics for the neurodegenerative disease. In another yeast model, Lindquist determined that prions have beneficial, adaptive effects that allow cells to function under adverse conditions and pass on these adaptations to their next generation.

For her Max Delbrück lecture, “HSF and the Balancing Act between Neurodegeneration and Cancer”, Lindquist focused on heat shock transcription factor 1 (HSF1), which regulates HSPs.

“The heat shock response, controlled by HSF1, is one of the most ancient and highly conserved mechanisms of protein homeostasis known. It regulates a multitude of growth responses and prevents the protein aggregation associated with aging and neurodegeneration,” says Lindquist, who is also a professor of biology at MIT and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator. “Ironically, however, eliminating HSF1 actually protects mice from certain tumors. Thus the heat shock response is a double-edged sword in the prevention of deadly diseases.”

HSPs form scaffolds around vulnerable or mutant proteins. By forcing mutant proteins into “normal” conformations, HSPs prevent protein aggregation caused by misfolded proteins sticking together. But, HSPs can also allow cancer cells to survive with numerous detrimental proteins and under the extremely stressful conditions necessary for cancer cells, like astronomically high protein production.

Lindquist, who is also a 2010 recipient of the National Medal of Science, is the fourth scientist from Whitehead Institute to receive the Max Delbrück Medal. Others receiving the honor include Rudolf Jaenisch (2006), Eric Lander (2001), and Robert Weinberg (1996).

The Max Delbrück Medal is named after physicist and biologist and Nobel Prize winner (1969) Max Delbrück, who is considered to be one of the founders of molecular biology. The first Max Delbrück Medal recipient was Professor Günter Blobel from Rockefeller University of New York, who later received the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

This year’s jury for the Max Delbrück Medal included researchers from Bayer Schering Pharma, Charite – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU), Freie Universität Berlin (FU), Leibniz-Institut für Molekulare Pharmakologie (FMP), Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics, Berlin, Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, Berlin, and German Rheumatism Research Center, Berlin (DRFZ).

Written by Nicole Giese Rura

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Susan Lindquist’s primary affiliation is with Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, where her laboratory is located and all her research is conducted. She is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and a professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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