June 19th, 2012

2012 Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research Honors Joint Discovery of micro-RNA


By Jay P. Siegel, M.D., Chief Biotechnology Officer and Head, Global Regulatory Affairs, Janssen R&D

The Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research honors the work of an active scientist in academia, industry or a scientific institute and recognizes scientific excellence in the advance of healthcare knowledge, while fulfilling responsibilities in the community.  The award was named after Dr. Paul Janssen, an extraordinarily gifted scientist who revolutionized modern medicine and inspired many who follow in his footsteps.  Today we announced the winners of the 2012 award:  Dr. Victor Ambros and Dr. Gary Rukvun, the co-discoverers of micro-RNA.

I am pleased that we can recognize the transformational discovery, as well as the collaborative spirit, of Drs. Ambros and Ruvkun with the 2012 Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research. Their tireless search for answers, as well as their partnership, echo the passionate pursuit of scientific knowledge for the benefit of patients exemplified by Dr. Paul.

When micro-RNA was first discovered in a roundworm by Dr. Victor Ambros’ lab in the early 1990’s its function and its relevance to humans was unknown.  What he and his lab found appeared to be a peculiarly small stretch of RNA which bound to other RNA in the worm’s cells. No one knew the discovery would prove so critical to present-day biomedical research.

It took about seven years before someone else—Dr. Gary Ruvkun and his lab—confirmed the discovery as part of a wider phenomenon. Working collaboratively, Ruvkun and Ambros then demonstrated that micro-RNAs inactivate their targets through direct, base-pairing interactions with messenger RNA. This discovery galvanized the scientific community and led to the discovery of thousands of miRNAs in diverse organisms, including humans.

Micro-RNAs are now believed to be central regulators of gene expression and development, and have been implicated in a wide range of normal and pathological activities, including embryonic development, blood-cell specialization, muscle function, heart disease, cancer and viral infections. The discovery by Drs. Ambros and Ruvkun has the potential to impact a variety of biomedical fields. As a result of their findings, researchers are exploring the possibility of using micro-RNAs for diagnosis and prognosis as well as in the development of therapies.

The work of Drs. Ambros and Ruvkun has expanded our scientific knowledge and demonstrates why it is so important to foster, fund, and encourage early-stage scientific research and collaboration. Thanks to Drs. Ambros and Ruvkun, major medical breakthroughs now lie in wait.


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