Joan Steitz Honored with the Distinguished Albany Medical Center Prize

Joan Steitz of Yale University — a pioneer in the study of RNA — is one of the first two women scientists to be named recipients of the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, America’s largest prize in medicine. She will share the award with Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco.

The co-recipients of the 2008 Albany Medical Center Prize, who will share the $500,000 award, were honored at a news conference and luncheon held today (May 2) at the Hilton Garden Inn at the Albany Medical Center. Now in its eighth year, the Albany Medical Center Prize is America’s top award in medicine: the largest prize in medicine in the United States, and the second largest in the world outside of the Nobel Prize.

Joan Steitz, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale, is best known for her pioneering work in RNA. She discovered and defined the function of small ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs) in pre-messenger RNA — the earliest product of DNA transcription, and was the first to learn that these cellular complexes (snRNPs) play a key role in processing messenger RNA by excising non-coding regions and splicing together the resulting segments. This process creates the templates for making proteins.

Her breakthroughs into the previously mysterious splicing process have clarified the science behind the formation of proteins and other biological processes including the intricate changes that occur as the immune system and brain develop.

“Many scientists believe that Dr. Steitz’ research may ultimately lead to breakthroughs in treating a variety of autoimmune diseases including lupus,” said James J. Barba, president and chief executive officer of Albany Medical Center, who served as chairman of the National Selection Committee. “Dr. Steitz and Dr. Blackburn are among the greatest scientists of our generation. The potential impact of their research is extraordinary and we all owe them a great debt of gratitude.”

The Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research was established in the fall of 2000 to encourage and recognize extraordinary and sustained contributions to improving health care and promoting innovative biomedical research. It was endowed by a gift of $50 million from the Marty and Dorothy Silverman Foundation to establish the prize to be given annually for 100 years.

Steitz began her illustrious career as a graduate student at Harvard in the biochemistry and molecular biology graduate program. She earned her Ph.D. in 1967. After completing post-doctoral work at the Medical Research Council Lab of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, she joined the department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale, first as an assistant professor and later as an associate and full professor.

She served as chair of the department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale, where she currently is a Sterling Professor. Steitz is a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. She is also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Steitz also was the Josiah Macy Scholar at the Max Planck Institut fur Biophysikalische Chemie in Gottingen, Germany and at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England. In addition, she was the Fairchild Distinguished Fellow at the California Institute of Technology, and is an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Among her numerous honors and awards, Steitz has received the Rosalind E. Franklin Award for Women in Science from National Cancer Institute (2006),the Gairdner Foundation International Award (2006), The E.B.Wilson Medal from the American Society for Cell Biology (2005), the Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Science (2002), the UNESCO-L’Oréal Award for Women in Science (2001), the First Weizmann Women & Science Award (1994), the Christopher Columbus Discovery Award in Biomedical Research (1992), and the National Science Foundation Medal of Science (1986).

Previous winners of the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine include 2007 co-recipients Robert J. Lefkowitz, M.D., Solomon H. Snyder, M.D., and Ronald M. Evans, for discoveries of how cellular receptors transmit signals; the late Seymour Benzer (2006), a neuroscientist, molecular biologist and physicist who uncovered genetic links to behavior; Robert S. Langer (2005), a chemical engineer whose research s helped spawn the field of tissue engineering; 2004 co-recipients Stanley N. Cohen, M.D., and Herbert W. Boyer, whose research on recombinant DNA paved the way for modern biotechnology; 2003 co-recipients Michael S. Brown, M.D., and Joseph L. Goldstein, M.D., whose studies of cholesterol have served as the foundation for the development of life-saving, cholesterol lowering drugs; recipient Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. (2002), for his seminal work on AIDS and other diseases of the immune system; and 2001 inaugural recipient Arnold J. Levine, Ph.D., who co-discovered the p53 protein tumor suppressor gene in human cancer.

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