November 18, 2009
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Victor Ambros shares prize for co-discovery of microRNAs

WORCESTER, Mass – University of Massachusetts Medical School Professor Victor R. Ambros, PhD, received the 2009 Meira and Shaul G. Massry Prize for his pivotal role in the discovery of microRNAs, small snippets of RNA which play a critical part in the regulation of gene functions. Sharing the honor is fellow molecular biologist and long-time collaborator Gary Ruvkun, PhD, of Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital.

“It is a great honor to be recognized with my collaborator, Dr. Ruvkin, in receiving the Massry Prize,” said Ambros, the Silverman Chair in Natural Sciences and professor of molecular medicine at UMMS. “Working together to understand a little worm a little better, we’ve accomplished much more than we ever imagined we would.”

Established in 1996 by the Meira and Shaul G. Massry Foundation of Beverly Hills, the Massry Prize honors scientists who have made outstanding contributions to the biomedical sciences and the advancement of health. The Massry Prize includes a substantial honorarium and several days of celebratory events are held in recognition of the Award recipients. Nine former Massry Prize winners have gone on to receive the Nobel Prize.

“It’s a tremendous discovery,” said Shaul G. Massry in a statement about Ambros and Ruvkun’s work. “It opened a new field and a new understanding of how the genome really functions. In essence, it’s trying to decipher the secret of life — how we come to be what we are.”

Ambros, 55, professor in the Program in Molecular Medicine at UMass Medical School, is widely regarded as a central figure in ribonucleic acid (RNA) biology for his work in identifying the function of microRNAs, the very short (approximately 22 nucleotide-long) single-stranded RNA molecules that are now understood to play a critical role in gene regulation. The first microRNA was discovered by Ambros and his lab in 1993 in a pathway controlling development in the nematode worm C. elegans. The discovery, however, seemed more an oddity than a breakthrough in part because the gene in which it was found, lin-4, existed only in the worm. But David Baulcombe, PhD, 57, a botanist at the University of Cambridge, England, discovered in 1999 that small RNAs similar to microRNAs are involved in the silencing of genes in plants as well, leading to the realization that the same mechanism was at work in both animals and plants. In 2000, Dr. Ruvkun, 57, discovered a second microRNA in C. elegans and reported evidence that microRNAs are evolutionarily ancient. Since then, Ambros and others have identified a wide variety of genes for diverse microRNAs in animals and plants, raising new questions about gene regulation and expression.

“Since the day he joined UMass Medical School, Victor has had a profound impact on our growing RNA community,” said Michael F. Collins, MD, chancellor of UMMS. “He is an integral member of a remarkable group of RNA researchers here who together are advancing the world’s understanding of biological mechanisms and furthering the field of biomedical sciences. We are delighted to see Victor recognized by our esteemed colleagues at Columbia University.”

In April 2008, Ambros and Ruvkun, along with Baulcombe, were honored with Benjamin Franklin Medals, awarded for achievements “that have directly and positively impacted and enhanced the quality of human life and deepened our understanding of the universe.” Shortly after, they received the Gairdner International Award, the Canadian government’s highest scientific honor, which recognizes “outstanding contributions by medical scientists worldwide whose work will significantly improve the quality of life.” In September of that year, Ambros, Ruvkun and Baulcombe received the Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research as well as the Warren Triennial Prize, awarded by Massachusetts General Hospital. All three are members of the National Academy of Sciences (Baulcombe was elected in 2005, Ambros in 2007 and Ruvkun in 2008).

Also in 2008, H. Scott Silverman, a 1997 graduate of Dartmouth College, and his father Jeffrey L. Silverman endowed the Silverman Chair in Natural Sciences at UMMS to honor Ambros. The endowment of the chair symbolizes the Silvermans’ enthusiasm for Ambros’ work and comes from a long-time friendship formed in 1997 when the younger Silverman, now a venture capitalist and investment fund manager, completed his honors research thesis under Ambros’ guidance at Dartmouth College. Both Scott and Jeff Silverman have long admired Ambros as a teacher and have followed his career, delighting in the numerous accolades Ambros has earned for his work.

In 2006 Ambros was awarded the Genetics Society of America Medal for outstanding contributions in the field of genetics in the past 15 years, and in 2005 he received the Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Research, which he shared with Ruvkun and 2006 Nobel Laureates Fire and Mello. Ambros is also a co-recipient of the 2002 Newcomb Cleveland Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Ambros completed his undergraduate and graduate degrees, as well as his post-doctoral research, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During graduate school, he worked with David Baltimore, PhD, a co-recipient of the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discoveries related to the interaction between tumor viruses and genetic material of the cell. In Dr. Baltimore’s lab, Ambros studied the poliovirus genome structure and replication. In 1979, he began his post-doctoral research in the lab of H. Robert Horvitz, PhD, who shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research related to genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death. Working as a post-doctoral fellow in Dr. Horvitz’s lab—where he met Ruvkun—Ambros’ research focused on genetic pathways that control developmental timing in C. elegans. After completing his post-doctoral fellowship, Ambros joined the faculty at Harvard in 1984 and remained there until 1992, when he accepted a faculty position at Dartmouth. He has maintained a very close collaborative relationship with Ruvkun through the years, though the two have not worked in the same laboratory since the early 1980s.

At UMMS, Ambros continues his research on microRNA function and gene regulation during development, and is focused on understanding the genetic and molecular mechanisms that control cell division, differentiation and morphogenesis in animals. He came to UMMS eager to expand his work in a thriving RNA community that includes, among other brilliant basic scientists, three Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators working in the field: Craig Mello; Melissa J. Moore, PhD; and Phillip D. Zamore, PhD. Together, the four lead the newly created UMMS RNA Therapeutics Institute through which scientists will pursue novel strategies for using RNAi to silence the action of disease-causing genes. The RNA Therapeutics Institute will be closely aligned with the Gene Therapy Center and the Center for Stem Cell Biology & Regenerative Medicine, pursuing the long-term vision to move new therapies more quickly from bench to bedside.

The University of Massachusetts Medical School attracts more than $200 million in research funding annually, and its innovative programs are the centerpiece of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Initiative. Consistently ranked by U.S.News & World Report as one of the leading medical schools in the nation for primary care education, UMMS comprises a medical school, graduate school of nursing, graduate school of biomedical sciences and an active research enterprise, and is a leader in health sciences education, research and public service. UMMS is the academic partner of UMass Memorial Health Care.

The Meira and Shaul G. Massry Foundation is a non-profit, public foundation established by the family and friends of Dr. Shaul G. Massry. Its objective is to promote education and support research in the field of kidney disease. Shaul G. Massry, MD is Professor Emeritus of Medicine, Physiology and Biophysics at the Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California and served as Chief of its Division of Nephrology from 1974 to 2000. He is internationally recognized for his research on kidney function and disease and, most notably, for his work on uremic toxicity.