Skip to main content

Albany Medical Center Prize awarded to C. David Allis

C. David Allis

C. David Allis has been named a recipient of the 2022 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, one of the country’s most prestigious biomedical awards. Allis, who is Rockefeller’s Joy and Jack Fishman Professor and head of the Laboratory of Chromatin Biology and Epigenetics, is receiving the honor for his innovative research showing how gene expression is shaped by the modification of histones.

If stretched to its full length, the DNA within every human cell would be about six feet long. The fact that it fits inside a cell’s nucleus is a biological marvel made possible by histones, proteins that act as spools around which DNA is tightly wound. Allis, however, suspected that histones, beyond being a clever packaging strategy, also played a role in gene expression—an idea that helped explain how cells with identical genetic information can perform distinct roles in various tissues throughout the body.

Pursuing this question in the 1990s with the help of then-graduate student Jim Brownell, Allis discovered that when one type of histone modification was in place, it could activate specific genes. In subsequent years, his lab uncovered how this and other histone modifications influence which parts of the genome are available for gene expression. Allis’s work opened an influential new field of study called epigenetics, which explores how genes are regulated by the addition or removal of chemical groups from histones or DNA, without ever altering genetic sequence.

Allis’s studies of mutated histones that drive cancer are now informing the development of new therapies designed to correct the behavior of cancer cells, rather than simply killing them. His work also has implications for developmental syndromes and neurological disorders.

Allis shares the prize with Michael Grunstein, an emeritus professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose complimentary genetic studies of yeast demonstrated the effects of altered histone proteins on gene expression. Allis and Grunstein were presented with this year’s award at a ceremony in Albany, New York, on October 12.

Established in 2000, the $500,000 Albany Prize honors scientists who have altered the course of medical research. Previous Rockefeller recipients of the prize include Luciano Marraffini in 2017, James E. Darnell and Robert G. Roeder in 2012, Elaine Fuchs in 2011, Ralph Steinman in 2009, and Arnold J. Levine in 2001.