Gary Ruvkun has come a long way from living in his van after being denied medical school admission by USC and UCLA in the early 1970s.
He and fellow molecular biologist Victor Ambros recently received the prestigious Meira and Shaul G. Massry Prize for their revolutionary research in micro RNA.
Ruvkun, now a Harvard professor, and Ambros, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, presented lectures on their findings in Mayer Auditorium on Nov. 12.
Micro RNA are single-stranded RNA molecules that regulate gene expression. When Ambros and Ruvkun discovered these tiny strips of genetic material just over a decade ago, they set off an explosion in the field of genetic research.
“None of us had been thinking of looking for something that small,” Ruvkun said during his lecture. “We’ve been riding this wave, and it’s been an amazing ride.”
Ruvkun and Ambros independently began studying the presence and role of micro RNA in tiny roundworms known as C. elegans. They eventually joined forces to push their research further. The result was the breakthrough discovery that RNA, like proteins, can regulate the actions of DNA, slowing genes down, speeding them up or turning them off and on. It was previously believed that RNA was merely a carrier of DNA instructions.
“In an effort to understand a little worm a little better, working together we’ve accomplished much more than we ever imagined we would,” Ambros said.
Like it or not, people are genetically only a few base pairs removed from worms, and the work of Ambros, Ruvkun and others in the field are likely to change the way diseases are treated in humans. The knowledge that micro RNAs are linked to certain types of cancer and genetic diseases can potentially lead to the development of new life-saving drugs.
“It’s a tremendous discovery,” said Shaul G. Massry, professor emeritus of medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and founder of the Meira and Shaul G. Massry Foundation. “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.”
The Massry Prize was established in 1996 to recognize outstanding contributions to the biomedical sciences and the advancement of health. Massry this year turned over management of the award to USC to ensure that it will continue to promote education and research in nephrology, physiology and related fields well into the future.
“I feel loyalty to USC,” Massry explained. “I’ve been doing [the Massry Prize] now for 13 years and I’m not going to live forever, so I need to set a system [through which] it will continue to work correctly. It’s another thing the school can be proud of.”
Nine previous recipients of the Massry Prize have gone on to win the Nobel Prize, and Massry is confident that Ambos and Ruvkun will follow in their footsteps. The duo also presented lectures at UCLA and were honored with an elaborate ceremony at the Council Chamber of the City of Beverly Hills on Nov. 14.
Chaired by Laurence H. Kedes, the prize committee consisted of Martin Pera, Harvey R. Herschman and Joel D. Kopple.