Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Elaine Fuchs is one of three scientists who have been awarded the 2011 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research. Fuchs, James A. Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, were honored for pioneering work in isolating human stem cells.
The Albany Prize, which is awarded annually, recognizes extraordinary and sustained contributions to improving health care and promoting biomedical research with translational benefits applied to improved patient care. Fuchs, Thomson, and Yamanaka are being recognized for work that has moved scientists closer to realizing the regenerative and potentially healing properties of stem cells, as well as helping illuminate how human tissues develop and function.
The scientists will receive the prize on May 13 during a celebration in Albany, New York. The $500,000 prize is the largest award in medicine and science in the United States.
The science of stem cell research focuses on the earliest stage of cellular development. These remarkable cells have the ability to become any tissue in the body and to reproduce indefinitely. Researchers hope to harness the power of these cells to one day repair or replace damaged tissue in patients, possibly building new spinal cords or growing new limbs.
Fuchs, whose lab is at Rockefeller University, studies skin and hair—two distinct structures that develop from the same skin stem cell. To use stem cells therapeutically, she says, it is essential to first understand how the cells function on the molecular level. By unraveling the biology of skin stem cells, she hopes to answer a question that has intrigued her for more than two decades: How does a skin stem cell decide to become skin or hair?
Understanding skin stem cells' normal behavior is also helping Fuchs learn what happens when their growth goes awry. Her studies have already uncovered the genetic basis of blistering skin diseases and clues to the way skin cancers and inflammatory skin disorders develop.
Her research may also hold clues for deciphering the extraordinary characteristics that enable stem cells to develop into distinct tissues and organs. "While there is much promise for stem cells in revolutionizing medicine, we must first learn more about stem cells before we can know whether this might be possible," she contends.
Unlike most other adult stem cells, skin stem cells can be easily grown in the laboratory. Fuchs's research has shown that multiple signaling pathways, including the Wnt and BMP pathways, influence how stem cells are coaxed to develop into hair follicles. Together, positive Wnt signals and antagonistic BMP signals lead to activation of transcription factors, which induce the formation of a hair follicle bud. In the absence of these signals, stem cells develop into skin epidermis. This line of research may eventually lead to new ways to restore or inhibit hair growth. By exploring how the stem cell reservoir (niche) forms and how stem cells are activated to proliferate and differentiate, Fuchs's work is having an impact on understanding how defective stem cells can cause cancers.
Fuchs is the recipient of numerous prizes and awards, including the National Medal of Science (2009), the FASEB Excellence in Science Award (2006), the Dickson Prize in Medicine (2004) from the University of Pittsburgh, and the Lounsbery Award (2001) from the National Academy of Sciences. She is a member of the Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.