Robert Roeder of Rockefeller University in New York City has won the 2003 Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, the United States' most prestigious biomedical award. Among the 127 past awardees, 47% are also Nobel laureates. Roeder has been a pioneer in working out the cell's molecular machinery for activating genes.
Roeder's road to the Lasker prize was a rocky one. He grew up on a farm in southern Indiana and his family wanted him to stay there instead of going to college. His dissertation work at the University of Washington, Seattle, during the late 1960s didn't go well. That is, "until the 12th hour," says Roeder. Then he made what many consider his most outstanding discovery--three enzymes called RNA polymerases that "read" or transcribe genes. He also found that each polymerase works on a specific class of genes. At the time, few researchers thought it would be possible to find and get such a detailed look at these important molecules.
Later work by Roeder and colleagues has revealed the remarkable complexity of transcription. Using a technique Roeder invented, his team identified helper proteins that must bind to the RNA polymerase to enable it to work. They also discovered proteins that bind DNA and regulate nearby genes--ensuring, for example, that liver genes are active only in the liver. Hundreds of these so-called DNA-binding regulatory molecules have now been found.
Roeder's Lasker award "was well deserved," says Michael Green, one of Roeder's former graduate students and a molecular biologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. "He took a biochemical approach long before anyone thought it would work and he stuck with it in good and bad times."
The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation also awarded two other prizes. Marc Feldmann and Ravinder Maini of the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology in London won the clinical medical research award for their work developing drugs to treat autoimmune diseases: They demonstrated that malfunctioning proteins lay at the heart of rheumatoid arthritis, the bowel ailment Crohn's disease, and other autoimmune disorders. The public service award went to Christopher Reeves, the actor who became paralyzed from the neck down in 1995 and subsequently has campaigned vigorously for more support for biomedical research.