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National Medal of Science goes to James Darnell
Gene regulation pioneer to be honored at White House ceremony
BY JOSEPH BONNER
The nation’s highest scientific award, the National Medal of Science, will be awarded to Rockefeller’s James E. Darnell Jr. next Friday in recognition of four decades of research into how genes and molecular signaling control cell processes.
Darnell becomes the 12th Rockefeller scientist to receive the award since it was established in 1959. Though announced last week, the honor becomes official on November 6, when President Bush will present the medal to Darnell at a formal White House ceremony.
The news comes just weeks after two of Darnell’s Rockefeller colleagues were also awarded two of the highest honors in science: the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, to Robert Roeder, and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, to Roderick MacKinnon (see story, above).
“It’s an especially exciting time to be part of this university,” says Paul Nurse, president of Rockefeller. “To win three prestigious prizes in such rapid succession is a testament to the quality of scientific research that goes on at this institution.”
Darnell, who is a Vincent Astor Professor and head of the Laboratory of Molecular Cell Biology, is best known for supplying much of the evidence for the theory — now generally accepted — that RNA is formed by a process of molecular carpentry in which chemicals are strung together into a long chain that is then cut into usable pieces.
Perhaps the most far-reaching results from Darnell’s laboratory began with research in the early 1980s that culminated with the mapping of the first complete “signal transduction” pathway in 1992. This pathway, named the JAK-STAT pathway, receives cues from molecules outside the cell and, in response, generates signals that travel to the cell’s nucleus, where specific tasks, such as the manufacture of hormones or other proteins, are initiated.
In this way, changes in environmental conditions outside of a cell can elicit specific reactions from the cell itself. The process is critical to cell-to-cell communication and cell specialization. In fact, when it was made, the discovery promoted a flurry of research into the ways cells receive signals to become and remain specialized, to respond to growth factors and to deal with infection.
Darnell’s research also has led to important insights about cancer. A protein called Stat3, one of the components of the JAK-STAT pathway, was previously known to be activated in various human cancer types, including lymphomas, leukemias, breast cancer and a high percentage of head and neck cancers. Darnell and his colleagues showed, for the first time, that persistent Stat3 activation could contribute directly to the development of these tumors.
Darnell also has made lasting contributions to the scientific community, both at Rockefeller and beyond. Over 120 doctoral and postdoctoral students have studied with him, 50 of whom are full professors and laboratory directors at research institutions throughout the world. At Rockefeller, beginning in the mid-1980s, he helped to establish more than 15 new junior faculty positions. He also has authored two books and served on the editorial boards of numerous journals.
The National Medal of Science recognizes scientists who have made outstanding contributions in their fields. Candidates are evaluated by a committee of 12 scientists appointed by the president of the United States. This year eight scientists will receive National Medals. The last time a Rockefeller University scientist won a National Medal of Science was in 1989, when Joshua Lederberg was recognized.

October 31, 2003



 

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