‘American Nobel Prize’ recognizes discovery of microRNAs

SEPTEMBER 13, 2008

WORCESTER, Mass.— University of Massachusetts Medical School Professor of Molecular Medicine Victor R. Ambros, PhD, has been named a co-recipient of the 2008 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research for work related to the discovery of microRNAs (miRNAs), tiny molecules that are now understood to play a critical role in gene regulation.  To be formally announced Sunday, September 14, by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, the prestigious award—considered by many to be the “American Nobel Prize”—will honor Dr. Ambros; longtime collaborator Gary B. Ruvkun, PhD, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital,and David C. Baulcombe, PhD, of University of Cambridge, England. 

“I feel incredibly honored to receive this award, alongside Drs. Baulcombe and Ruvkun. The award reflects the many opportunities I’ve had to work with extraordinary mentors, students and collaborators,” said Dr. Ambros.

“When we recruited Dr. Ambros, we knew his presence would have a profound impact on our growing RNA community,” said Michael F. Collins, MD, interim Chancellor of UMMS. “He is an integral member of a remarkable group of RNA researchers here at UMass who together are advancing the world’s understanding of biological mechanisms and furthering the field of biomedical sciences. The Lasker Award confirms what the UMMS community already knows of Dr. Ambros’s contributions to scientific discovery and innovation.”

Said University of Massachusetts President Jack Wilson, “I congratulate Victor Ambros on behalf of the entire University community.  We take great pride in his spectacular accomplishment and in the extraordinary success of the entire collaborative research enterprise that has emerged around RNA.  The University is on the move, and this is a truly outstanding example of the momentum that is propelling the University to a position of global prominence.”

“The announcement of the Lasker Award is great news for Dr. Ambros, for the University of Massachusetts and for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” said Governor Deval Patrick. “This very prestigious award illustrates that the University of Massachusetts Medical School has become a global leader in an area of scientific inquiry that has transformed the research landscape and offers so much promise for mankind.”

Ambros is widely regarded as a central figure in 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.

Baulcombe, a botanist, discovered that small RNAs similar to microRNAs are involved in the silencing of genes in plants, leading to the realization that the same mechanism was at work in both and animals and plants. In 2000, Ruvkun 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.  Today, 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.

Ambros completed his undergraduate and graduate degrees as well as his postdoctoral 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 postdoctoral research in the lab of H. Robert Horvitz, who shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his research related to genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death. As a 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 postdoctoral fellowship, in 1984 Ambros joined the faculty at Harvard where he remained until 1992, when he accepted a faculty position at Dartmouth. He joined UMMS from Dartmouth in 2007. He has maintained a collaborative relationship with Ruvkun through the years, though the two have not worked in the same laboratory since the early 1980s.

“Gary Ruvkun is one of the most imaginitive scientists whom I have known. Working, or even just talking, with Gary is always an exciting and stimulating adventure. I feel incredibly fortunate to have worked with Gary, to have shared with him the pleasure of discovery, and now to also share with him this amazing award.”

Ambros has received numerous honors for his scientific achievements, including the 2005 Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Research, which he shared with Ruvkun and 2006 Nobel Laureates Andrew Z. Fire, PhD, of Stanford University and Craig C. Mello, PhD, of UMMS. (Mello completed his PhD research in Ambros’s lab at Harvard in the 1980s.) Ambros is also a co-recipient of the 2002 Newcomb Cleveland Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and he was awarded the 2006 Genetics Society of America Medal for outstanding contributions in the field of genetics in the past 15 years. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2007.

Earlier this year, Ambros and Ruvkun 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.” Ambros, Ruvkun and Baulcombe were also recently honored with Benjamin Franklin Medals, which is awarded for achievements “that have directly and positively impacted and enhanced the quality of human life and deepened our understanding of the universe.” Ruvkun and Baulcombe are also members of the National Academy of Sciences

UMMS contact: Alison Duffy, 508.856.2000;
Lasker contact: Kendall Christiansen, 781-941-9535;

About the University of Massachusetts Medical School
The University of Massachusetts Medical School, one of the fastest growing academic health centers in the country, has built a reputation as a world-class research institution, consistently producing noteworthy advances in clinical and basic research.  The Medical School attracts more than $179 million in research funding annually, 80 percent of which comes from federal funding sources. The work of UMMS researcher Craig Mello, PhD, an investigator of the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), and his colleague Andrew Fire, PhD, then of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, toward the discovery of RNA interference was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and has spawned a new and promising field of research, the global impact of which may prove astounding. UMMS is the academic partner of UMass Memorial Health Care, the largest health care provider in Central Massachusetts. For more information, visit