NIGMS Grantees Honored With Top U.S. Science Prize for Discovering Tiny, Regulatory RNAs


September 15, 2008

Statement from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences congratulates two long-time grantees, Victor R. Ambros, Ph.D., and Gary B. Ruvkun, Ph.D., on receiving the 2008 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research. The award, which many call "America’s Nobel Prize," honors scientists whose fundamental investigations have advanced medical research.

NIGMS has supported Ambros since 1984 and Ruvkun since 1991. Ruvkun also receives funding from the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, other components of the National Institutes of Health.

Ambros and Ruvkun share the award with David C. Baulcombe, Ph.D., of the United Kingdom.

The award recognizes the scientists for their groundbreaking discovery of microRNAs, tiny RNAs that regulate gene function in animals and plants. In the course of their studies on development in nematode worms, Ambros and Ruvkun observed that a gene called lin-4 exerts its effects via a tiny part of its RNA transcript rather than a protein product. Because the prevailing view was that proteins were the sole regulators of gene activity, this finding was completely unexpected.

Ambros and Ruvkun’s seminal discovery led to intense research by scientists across the country, much of it supported by NIGMS and other parts of NIH. Collectively, the work revealed the presence of microRNAs in virtually all species, including humans. Recent studies have estimated that the human genome contains between 500 and 1,000 microRNAs, which regulate up to a third of our genes and have been implicated in a number of cellular processes.

Through their remarkable insight and perseverance, these NIGMS grantees uncovered a mechanism that has fundamentally changed our view of gene regulation and revolutionized biomedical research. Their work has led to the exploration of the many roles played by microRNAs in the cell and holds promise for yielding new ways to treat a broad range of diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.