Renowed yeast and human geneticist at UCSF receives major research honor

Ira Herskowitz, PhD, professor of biochemistry and biophysics and co-director of the Program in Human Genetics at the University of California, San Francisco, has received the 2003 Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Research.

The internationally recognized honor, considered on par with the Lasker award, is given annually to scientists for recent discoveries of particular originality and importance to basic medical research. It is presented by Brandeis University on the basis of recommendations of leading scientists selected by the Rosenstiel Basic Medical Sciences Research Center at the university.

Herskowitz was honored for his pioneering genetic studies on the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which have yielded major insights into the fundamental aspects of cell biology in all organisms, including humans. He discovered the molecular basis for cellular differentiation, or specialization, in yeast and the molecular mechanisms that control yeast cell division. He also pioneered studies of gene expression, cell signaling, cell formation and growth control in the yeast.

The discoveries have provided major insights into how changes within DNA contribute to inherited diseases, and thus have tremendous implications for the treatment and prevention of such diseases. More broadly, the research has contributed to the understanding of the way in which organisms develop.

Herskowitz was also honored for his ground-breaking studies in pharmacogenetics, the study of the way in which natural variations in individuals’ genes can affect their response to drugs. He is co-leader of a novel UCSF National Institutes of Health-funded study aimed at determining how human genetic variation affects the performance of cellular gatekeepers known as membrane transporters, which control whether drugs enter the blood stream. The research is not only uncovering the range and pattern of transporter variation in humans, but also revealing evolutionary and functional constraints on that variation.

In other research relevant to pharmaceutical sciences, Herskowitz’s team recently reported the way in which yeast cells, and perhaps cancer cells, become resistant to the potent anti-cancer drug, cisplatin.

Finally, as co-director of the UCSF Program in Human Genetics, Herskowitz has helped provide a unified framework for all human genetics teaching and research activities at UCSF.

“Ira Herskowitz is a legend in the biomedical community.  He has pioneered the use of yeast to discover several of the fundamental principles of eukaryotic cell biology.  He has inspired a generation of students and even faculty colleagues to follow his lead in applying ‘the awesome power of yeast genetics,’ in his widely quoted words, to solve their experimental problems. He also symbolizes to us all what a well-rounded scientist should aspire to,” says UCSF Vice Chancellor Regis Kelly.

“Even those with little knowledge of his science know of his reputation for guitar playing and singing, with a repertoire ranging from the standards to witty and satirical songs of his own composition,” says Kelly.

A member of the University of California, San Francisco’s Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Herbert Boyer Program in Biological Sciences, Herskowitz received his Baccalaureate bachelor’s degree from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and his doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, where he also conducted postdoctoral research.

Herskowitz was elected to the Institute of Medicine in 2002, a rare honor for a basic scientist.
He was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1986, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1998. He is a longstanding member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Microbiology. He also is a former MacArthur Foundation Fellow. His many awards and offices include the Eli Lilly Award in Microbiology and Immunology, 1983; president, Genetics Society of America, 1985; MacArthur Foundation Fellow, 1987-92; Genetics Society of America Medal, 1988; Mendel Lecturer, Genetics Society of Great Britain, 1991; Distinguished Alumni Award, California Institute of Technology, 1994; Honorary Doctor of Science Degree, St. Louis University, 1997; Yanofsky Lecturer, Stanford University, 2001; and the Genetics Society of America Thomas Hunt Morgan Award, 2002.

The Rosenstiel Award was established in 1971 as an expression of the conviction that educational institutions have an important role to play in the encouragement and development of basic science as it applies to medicine. The recipient receives a $10,000 prize and a medallion acknowledging receipt of the award.

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