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Luciano Marraffini wins Vilcek Prize in Biomedical Science

Luciano Marraffini, a pioneer in the study of CRISPR-Cas systems in bacteria and their potential for genome editing, has received the 2024 Vilcek Prize in Biomedical Science. Each year, this honor recognizes outstanding immigrant scientists whose work has had a profound impact on biomedical research, with important contributions to medicine and human health.

Marraffini who was born in Rosario, Argentina, and attended the University of Rosario, moved to the U.S. to earn his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago and conduct postdoctoral research at Northwestern University. In 2010, he was recruited to The Rockefeller University where he is currently the Kayden Family Professor and head of the Laboratory of Bacteriology.

For years, Marraffini has been uncovering the molecular mechanisms of CRISPR-Cas systems that help bacteria defend themselves against viral invaders. With Erik Sontheimer, Marraffini showed that CRISPR-CAS targets and destroys viral DNA, rather than RNA, as previously thought. Their groundbreaking paper in 2008 noted that, as a result, CRISPR could become a broader tool for genome editing. In collaboration with Feng Zhang’s lab at the Broad Institute, Marraffini conducted the original in vivo CRISPR-Cas genome-editing projects and showed its effectiveness across cell types.

Today, CRISPR-Cas is a ubiquitous biotechnological tool with great potential to prevent and treat a wide range of diseases. This year, the FDA announced its first approval for the clinical use of gene editing for the treatment of sickle cell anemia and beta thalassemia.

Marraffini has continued his cutting-edge research on bacterial defense systems. Most recently, his lab demonstrated a distinct pathway by which bacteria recognize viral infection and initiate bacterial cell death.

The Vilcek Foundation was established in 2000 by Jan and Marica Vilcek, immigrants from the former Czechoslovakia. The mission of the foundation, to raise awareness of immigrant contributions in the United States and foster appreciation for the arts and sciences, was inspired by the couple’s respective careers in biomedical science and art history. Since 2000, the foundation has awarded over $7 million in prizes to foreign-born individuals and has supported organizations with over $6 million in grants.

Other Rockefeller faculty have been recognized by the Vilcek Foundation. Titia de Lange received the Vilcek Prize in Biomedical Science in 2011. In addition, Shixin Liu and Kivanç Birsoy received Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise, which recognize scientists who have immigrated to the United States and made exceptional contributions early in their careers.