Two Scientists Receive 2016 March of Dimes Prize For Revolutionary Co-Discovery of MICRORNAs, The Smallest Genes In Biology

Baltimore, | Monday, May 2, 2016

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Victor R. Ambros, PhD, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and Gary Ruvkun, PhD, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, have been awarded the 2016 March of Dimes and Richard B. Johnston, Jr., MD Prize in Developmental Biology. The Prize recognizes their pioneering co-discovery of an unanticipated world of the tiniest genes, microRNAs (or miRNAs), and the mechanism by which they regulate their targets.

This is the 21st annual awarding of the Prize, now newly named in honor of Dr. Johnston, Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado and a former Medical Director of the March of Dimes.

MicroRNAs play pivotal roles in development and physiology of many organisms, including humans. There now exists a catalog of the thousands of miRNAs produced in animals and plants. Human miRNAs are implicated in heart disease, in how viruses infect our cells, in normal brain function, in the transition from totipotent stem cells to differentiated cells, and in cancer. Human therapies based on microRNA regulation are already in clinical trials for heart disease.

Dr. Ambros is the Silverman Chair in Natural Sciences and Professor of Molecular Medicine at the University of Massachusetts. Dr. Ruvkun is the Hans-Hermann Schoene Distinguished Investigator at Massachusetts General Hospital, Department of Molecular Biology and  Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School.  Working independently and also at times together, the two scientists identified microRNAs, the smallest genes ever discovered, and elucidated how these small pieces of genetic material influence the production of proteins from particular messenger RNAs to which they are complementary.  Their finding that microRNAs switch off the production of proteins from their target genes has changed our knowledge of various developmental and physiological processes.

Dr. Ambros and Dr. Ruvkun published back-to-back studies in the journal Cell in 1993, describing their surprising findings.

“Dr. Ambros and Dr. Ruvkun showed us that microRNAs, genes much smaller than ever imagined, are pivotal for governing embryonic development,” says Joe Leigh Simpson, MD, Senior Vice President for Research and Global Programs at the March of Dimes.  “We now know that microRNAs are involved in a wide range of activities relevant to birth defects, viral infections, cancer, and other disorders. This has revealed exciting new paths for lifesaving diagnostic tools and treatments for mothers and babies.”

“I am deeply honored to be associated with the March of Dimes Prize because of the high value I place on what it does to improve the lives of babies and children,” says Dr. Johnston. “Scientific research has been central to the mission of the March of Dimes since it was founded by President Franklin Roosevelt. The March of Dimes Prize has extended that tradition through its recognition of the very best in the field of developmental and genetic science. Drs. Ambros and Ruvkun have made discoveries in basic science of the highest order, and their discoveries are already being translated into a better understanding of the biologic processes that underlie development of a healthy baby or that can go awry and allow birth defects and prematurity.”

Victor Ambros earned his undergraduate degree and Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was the first postdoctoral fellow in the lab of H. Robert Horvitz (recipient of the 2000 March of Dimes Prize). At MIT, Dr. Ambros was a colleague of Gary Ruvkun. In 1993, Dr.Ambros discovered the first microRNA in the roundworm C. elegans and later discovered many more microRNAs in C. elegans. He has received numerous awards in recognition of his work, including the 2008 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, shared with Gary Ruvkun and the Breakthrough Prize. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences.       

Gary Ruvkun obtained his undergraduate degree in biophysics at the University of California, Berkeley, and his PhD at Harvard. He conducted postdoctoral research with Dr. Horvitz at MIT, where he was also a colleague of Victor Ambros.  Dr. Ruvkun and Dr. Ambros reported the novel microRNA-mediated mode of gene regulation in C. elegans in 1993.  Dr. Ruvkun discovered the mechanism of microRNA regulation of target genes:  the miRNA shuts down the production by protein from the target messenger RNA via base-pairing.  In 2000, Dr. Ruvkun discovered the second miRNA and that it was conserved across evolution in animals, including in humans.  Dr. Ruvkun has published more than 150 scientific articles and has received numerous previous awards for his work, including the 2008 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research shared with Victor Ambros and the Breakthrough Prize. Dr. Ruvkun is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Ambros and Dr. Ruvkun will deliver the 21th annual March of Dimes Prize Lectures today at the Baltimore Convention Center during the 2016 Pediatric Academy Societies annual meeting. They will receive the Prize at a gala black-tie dinner and ceremony at the Royal Sonesta Hotel, hosted by CBS sportscaster Greg Gumbel, member of the March of Dimes national Honorary Board of Trustees.

The March of Dimes Prize has been awarded annually since 1996 to honor investigators whose research has profoundly advanced the science that underlies the understanding of birth defects. The March of Dimes Foundation created the Prize as a tribute to Dr. Jonas Salk shortly before his death in 1995. Dr. Salk received Foundation support for his work on the polio vaccine. The Prize is a cash award of $250,000. Each recipient receives a silver medal in the design of the Roosevelt dime, honoring President Franklin D. Roosevelt, March of Dimes founder.

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March of Dimes leads the fight for the health of all moms and babies. We support research, lead programs and provide education and advocacy so that every baby can have the best possible start. Building on a successful 80-year legacy of impact and innovation, we empower every mom and every family.

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