Summary

HHMI Investigator Peter Walter of UCSF shares the 2014 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award with Kazutoshi Mori of Kyoto University.

Highlights

  • The Lasker Awards honor visionaries whose insight and perseverance have led to major research advances.
  • HHMI Investigator Peter Walter and Kazutoshi Mori of Kyoto University are being honored for the discovery of the unfolded protein response.
  • The unfolded protein response protects the integrity of cells by serving as an intracellular quality control system that detects harmful misfolded proteins. 

The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation announced today that Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator Peter Walter of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and Kazutoshi Mori of Kyoto University will share the 2014 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award.

The Lasker Awards—considered among the most respected science prizes in the world—honor visionaries whose insight and perseverance have led to dramatic advances that will prevent disease and prolong life.

Walter and Mori are being honored for discoveries concerning the unfolded protein response, an intracellular quality control system that detects harmful misfolded proteins in the endoplasmic reticulum and signals the nucleus to carry out corrective measures. According to the announcement from the Lasker Foundation, basic research by the two has led to a better understanding of inherited diseases such as cystic fibrosis, retinitis pigmentosa, and certain elevated cholesterol conditions in which unfolded proteins overwhelm the unfolded protein response.

The awards, which carry an honorarium of $250,000, will be presented at a ceremony on September 19 in New York City. Including Walter, 15 current HHMI investigators have won Lasker Awards, the nation's most distinguished honor for outstanding contributions to basic and clinical medical research.

Walter was named an HHMI investigator in 1997. He is also a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at UCSF. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Walter has been honored as a recipient of the Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine and the Canada Gairdner International Award.

Inside the cell, many newly made proteins pass through a maze-like structure of membranes, where they are folded and groomed into their final shapes before being shipped to precise destinations to carry out their functions. This structure, called the endoplasmic reticulum, enforces strict quality control standards to help ensure that defective or misfolded proteins are not allowed to leave. Walter is exploring the signaling pathway by which cells alter their quantities of endoplasmic reticulum. This communication process is so crucial to cells that imbalances can lead to a number of diseases, including cancer, diabetes, cystic fibrosis, and vascular and neurodegenerative diseases.

Growing up in Germany, Walter spent hours in his father's West Berlin "chemist shop," a drugstore where medicines and chemicals were mixed and sold. This exposure—along with his own dabbling in the pyrotechnical adventures of mixing chemicals—fostered Walter's early interest in science. By age 12, he knew he wanted to be a chemist. He came to Vanderbilt University as a graduate student, part of a nine-month exchange program in organic chemistry. Walter's main intent was to immerse himself in the English language, a prerequisite he thought necessary to further his research career. He quickly discovered, however, that American universities offered scientists-to-be more hands-on experience and training to eventually work as independent researchers. Walter became hooked on this style of learning and never left.

As a PhD student at the Rockefeller University in the late 1970s, Walter worked with Günter Blobel, an HHMI investigator and winner of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of the mechanisms that proteins use to find their correct locations within the cell. Blobel had postulated that newly synthesized proteins contain built-in signals, or address tags, that direct them to their proper destinations, but it remained unclear how the address tags were recognized. That problem was solved when Walter identified the six proteins and the small bit of RNA that make up the signal recognition particle. The identification of this particle was central to Blobel's hypothesis. To this day, Walter continues to study the signals used by proteins to ensure they are shuttled to their proper destinations.

In his laboratory at UCSF, Walter is deciphering the pathways that cells use to regulate the abundance of their organelles. With a particular focus on the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), he uncovered a feedback loop within cells called the "unfolded protein response." Working with yeast as a model, his pioneering studies have shown that cells need the right amount of ER to properly fold newly assembled proteins. The same principles also apply in higher organisms, including humans. "Regulating how much ER you have is a fundamental process for cells, and it is a key determinant for any number of diseases," Walter noted. "By understanding the details of this mechanism, we hope to make significant contributions to understanding many medically important pathologies."

If there is too little ER, for example, misfolded proteins accumulate, triggering a signaling pathway between the ER and the nucleus that produces more ER to increase the capacity with which the proteins can be properly folded. If this feedback loop doesn't work and misfolded proteins accumulate inside the ER, the cell will commit suicide. "The cell is programmed so that rather than putting crappy and potentially harmful proteins on the cell surface, it will die," Walter explained. His lab has identified the genes centrally involved in the unfolded protein response and deciphered their function in this cell-internal communication pathway.

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For More Information

Jim Keeley 301.215.8858 keeleyj@hhmi.org