A Nobel Prize may be looming in the horizon for Yale professor Arthur Horwich, who received one of science’s most prestigious awards Monday.
Horwich, Sterling Professor of Genetics & Pediatrics, received the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award from the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation for his work on the process of protein folding, or formation. Since the award’s inception in 1945, 80 recipients have gone on to win Nobel Prizes, 28 of whom were awarded in the past two decades, according to the Lasker
Foundation’s website. Four Lasker awards have been awarded this year. Whether or not it goes on to win a Nobel, Horwich’s colleagues said his research has already been invaluable.
“His discovery has transformed our understanding of protein folding and is highly relevant to a number of diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s [diseases],” School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern said.
While completing postdoctoral work at Yale in the 1980s, Horwich conducted research on protein formation in mitochondria, which are small energy-producing compartments in cells. Horwich’s enthusiasm for this area of research was bolstered when biological chemist Christian Anfinsen received the 1972 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for showing that proteins can fold independently — a concept that became widely accepted.
About a decade later, Horwich showed that Anfinsen’s theory needed to be refined when he discovered that some proteins need other ‘helper’ proteins to fold correctly.
“We were challenging major thinking of a lot of people,” Horwich said, “[and would] have to really marshal some evidence.”
As evident by the Lasker Award and its presence in biology textbooks, Horwich’s theory proved convincing.
His colleagues expressed enthusiasm for Horwich’s recognition by the Lasker Foundation.
“One defining characteristic is that [Horwich] works in the lab, carrying out his own experiments, every day,” lab resident scientist Wayne Fenton said. “His ‘office’ is his lab bench.”
Indeed, Horwich has been excited about science from an early age.
As a child, Horwich owned his own chemistry set alongside a small library of math and science books. By the age of nine, Horwich had learned how to use ham radio.
“I always liked things that had to do with math and science,” Horwich said.
Today, as questions fly about Horwich’s candidacy for the Nobel Prize, Horwich is focused on continuing his prize-winning research.
He said he hopes to apply his research to the study of human neurodegenerative diseases.
“We’re just scratching the surface of what we know about [diseases],” Horwich said.
The Lasker Foundation offers awards in four separate areas each year — basic medical research, clinical research, special achievement in medical science and public service.