A scientist at play

Geneticist wins prestigious science prize.

Christopher Jones

Christopher Jones

Geneticist Arthur Horwich won the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for his work on protein folding. View full image

“I’ve had a huge amount of fun doing what we’ve been doing for the last 20 years,” says Arthur Horwich, the Sterling Professor of Genetics and Pediatrics at Yale. “Getting to play with this magical machine is like a kid getting to play with toys.”

Horwich’s magical machine is no human engineer’s creation, but a biological device whose secrets he uncovered: the “chaperonin,” a specialized protein manufactured and used within our cells to assist in the folding of other proteins. All this fun recently resulted in Horwich’s being named corecipient of the 2011 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, one of science’s most prestigious prizes (and often a sign that a Nobel lies in the future). He shares the award with Franz-Ulrich Hartl of Germany.

When something goes wrong during protein folding, the misshapen proteins that result can lead to a variety of neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Horwich and his team are now focused on a form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) that is caused by protein misfolding. “It’s wonderful to be recognized for our work,” he says, “but the science is the main thing. I’d love to find a way to prevent ALS from happening.”

Horwich, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, got his undergraduate and medical degrees from Brown. He did his residency in pediatrics at Yale and spent three years at the Salk Institute in California before returning to Yale in 1981.

One thing that sets Horwich apart from other scientists of his stature is that he continues to do hands-on work in the lab. “My office is a storage depot,” he says. “My real office is a desk next to my lab bench. I never really quit being a postdoc. I still love working side by side with the other graduate students and postdocs.”  

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