Founding Member Harvey Lodish Receives the Donald Metcalf Award for Research on Red Blood Cells

Lodish stands smiling in his office.

Credit: Gretchen Ertl

March 5, 2020

Tags: Lodish LabAwards + Announcements

The International Society for Experimental Hematology (ISEH) has selected Whitehead Institute Founding Member Harvey Lodish to receive the organization’s Donald Metcalf Award for 2020. This highest award of the society honors a scientist who has made outstanding contributions to basic science in the fields of hematology, immunology, stem cell research, and cell and gene therapy.

With the selection, ISEH recognizes Lodish’s 50-plus year research career, which is studded with accomplishments. His achievements include cloning, from developing red blood cells, the first glucose transport protein, GLUT1; the first anion transport protein, Band 3; as well as the receptor for Epo, the hormone that controls red cell formation. His lab has also cloned and characterized many genes important for the differentiation of stem cells into red blood cells. They have engineered red blood cells to counter many diseases and Rubius, a local biotech Lodish helped found, is developing these therapies.

“It’s wonderful to receive this award—and ironic, because although I’ve done hematology research for about sixty years, I’ve never considered myself a ‘hematologist,’” Lodish says. He first started working on red blood cells in 1958, when his high school chemistry teacher arranged for him to work in Robert Eckel’s lab at what is now Case Western Reserve University. “I worked on a project searching for the metabolite that powered red cells’ uptake of potassium, and we published our work in 1961,” recalls Lodish. “And from that time, it’s stuck with me that red cells, how they are formed, and how they function is really interesting.” Over the years, he estimates that red blood cell-focused studies have comprised about 50 percent of his lab’s work. His other key focuses have included the composition and function of adipose cells—including the function of proteins and noncoding RNAs in adipose cell formation—and the metabolism of glucose and fatty acids. In total, his work has had important implications for the treatment of anemias, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

While the Metcalf Award necessarily embodies a retrospective view, Lodish himself is very future-focused. Having decided to close his highly productive lab, he’s turning his attention primarily to educating the next generation of life scientists and to advancing the clinical translation of basic science discoveries. With seven colleagues he is finalizing the ninth edition of Molecular Cell Biology, the leading textbook in the field. Lodish, who is a professor of biology and of biological engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is also teaching a novel course at the Whitehead Institute that helps students from business, science and bioengineering, healthcare, and public policy learn how to translate basic science discoveries into marketable therapeutics. “Too many good ideas wither on the vine for lack of funding for early-stage development,” Lodish says. “We need creative new ways of underwriting early-stage development—and that requires getting more smart, innovative people focusing on the problem from multiple perspectives.”

Another requirement for bringing more great ideas to fruition, Lodish points out, is breaking down the existing hurdles for women who want to launch start-up companies and gain financial support from venture capital firms. “A recent survey showed that fewer than 10 percent of MIT faculty start-ups were founded by women—Stanford University found essentially the same situation—and it’s estimated that, all things being equal, there should be 40 more female-founded biotech start-ups from MIT than exist today.” To help address that inequity, he is working with three of MIT’s most accomplished faculty—Sangeeta Bhatia, Susan Hockfield, and Nancy Hopkins—to organize a series of mentoring sessions for faculty. The sessions will offer a leg-up on topics such as technology licensing, patent law, federal regulations, and venture capital. “Our goal is to better enable female faculty members at MIT—and perhaps, soon, at other universities—to start and build companies that bring big ideas to fruition and develop therapies for the many unmet medical needs,” he says.

Lodish knows, first hand, what it takes to translate discoveries into effective and marketable therapeutics: his successful ventures range from Genzyme—launched in the 1980s to develop drugs based on recombinant human enzymes—to Rubius, which was created in 2015 to use red blood cells to deliver therapeutics for long periods of time. For the foreseeable future, he’ll be focusing most of his time on applying that experience to help advance several promising discoveries through the complex process of translation and development into treatments for serious hematologic and immunologic conditions. He is currently working to launch or build four start-up companies, which are developing therapies for autoimmune diseases, epilepsies and other brain disorders, and several types of rare diseases.

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