Dr. Nahum Sonenberg Named a Winner of the 2014 Wolf Prize in Medicine

A pioneer in the field of protein synthesis, Dr. Nahum Sonenberg was recently named one of this year's winners of the Wolf Prize in Medicine. This prestigious prize is awarded by the Wolf Foundation of Israel, which has been recognizing excellence in the arts and sciences annually since 1978. The awards ceremony will be held in the Knesset on June 1, 2014.

"The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) extend their warmest congratulations to Dr. Sonenberg for his achievement," says Dr. Alain Beaudet, President of CIHR. "This recognition is a testament to the tremendous value of basic research and its potential applications". 

CIHR has been a proud investor in Dr. Sonenberg's research for many years and has recognized his exceptional contribution to the health sciences by bestowing on him its highest award, that of Canada's Health Researcher of the Year in Biomedical and Clinical Research, in 2009.

Dr. Sonenberg's discovery of eIF4E, a molecule critical for the translation of genetic information into proteins, helped create opportunities for controlling protein synthesis in mammals. "When you can't control the amount of proteins in the cell, then you have an imbalance, which leads to disease, if not death," he says.

Over the past 35 years at McGill University, Dr. Sonenberg has continued to explore the implications of his initial discovery. His research, for example, helped explain the cancer-fighting properties of rapamycin, a drug originally developed as an antifungal agent and immunosuppressant for organ transplant recipients. "Without the knowledge we had accumulated on protein synthesis, we would not have known how exactly the drug works," he says.

His team has also shown that preventing eIF4E phosphorylation — the process of switching on or off protein enzymes and changing their function — reduces tumour growth. In partnership with a pharmaceutical company, he is now attempting to develop new medications based on this observation.

Although Dr. Sonenberg's laboratory is primarily focused on cancer research, its findings have also expanded knowledge about autism and memory. In addition, he and his team are now exploring the biological mechanisms underlying pain. "It's extremely intimidating to do something new, knowing you can't do it perfectly," he says. "It's a big risk. So you find the right collaborators. We work on all these diseases without understanding them as well as the experts, but we can still make a contribution. That's what's exciting about science."

While his work has led to new therapeutic approaches, his heart is still pulled towards basic research. "In the morning I get up and ask, 'What makes the liver bigger than the spleen?'. Extremely simple questions a child could ask. If we study and learn the basics, we can answer these questions."

Dr. Sonenberg is the James McGill Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and the Goodman Cancer Centre at McGill University, where he has taught since 1979. He received his MSc (Microbiology and Immunology) from Tel-Aviv University, and earned his PhD from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. Among his many honours, he was awarded the Gairdner International Award in 2008 and named to the Order of Canada in 2010.

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