Harvard Professor and FIRE Director Richard Losick Wins Prestigious Medical Research Award

By April 13, 2009

FIRE is proud to announce that a member of our Board of Directors, Professor Richard Losick, has won the prestigious Gairdner International Award for biomedical research. Professor Losick is the Maria Moors Cabot Professor of Biology, a Harvard College Professor, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor in the Faculty of Arts & Sciences at Harvard University.

The Gairdner International Award is bestowed by the Gairdner Foundation of Canada and comes with a prize of $100,000 (CAD). The purpose of the award is "to honour and reward outstanding biomedical scientists who have made original contributions to medicine with the ultimate goal of contributing through research to the conquest of disease and relief of human suffering." This award is a huge honor; to give some perspective on how important it is, as of last year, no fewer than 73 of the last 288 recipients of the award had gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

Here’s how Professor Losick described his research on the Gairdner Foundation’s website:

How do living cells transform themselves from one type of cell into another? Studying the molecular mechanisms by which cells switch identity has been my passion throughout my career.  I tackled this problem in a primitive organism, a bacterium that can either grow and divide or transform itself into a dormant cell known as a spore. Making a spore involves two cells, one that will become the spore and one that nurtures the developing spore. My coworkers and I discovered mechanisms by which a cell divides asymmetrically to give rise to the developing spore and the nurturing cell. We discovered an important class of regulatory proteins that controls the expression of large blocks of genes during spore formation and as we now know in many other kinds of bacteria as well. We elucidated exquisitely intricate mechanisms orchestrating the expression of hundreds of genes and ensuring that they are switched on at the right time and the right place. My coworkers and I also discovered that the protein products of those genes have distinctive subcellular addresses and localize in a choreographed movement. Finally, and remarkably, we found that the developing spore and the nurturing cell talk to each other in a chemical code that keeps events in one cell in register with events in the sister cell, and we elucidated the molecular mechanisms by which these conversations takes place. Understanding bacteria is important to humanity because microbes are both beneficial and the causative agent of many diseases. The human body is a host to ten times more bacteria than human cells and bacteria are important agents of change in our environment and in Earth’s history. Some microbes are pathogens whereas others are sources of medicines. Fundamental studies of bacteria inform efforts to combat infections and to harness the microbial world for the benefit of humanity.

Congratulations to Professor Losick! Those of us who fight for liberty on America’s campuses are fortunate to have him on our team.