UCSF Nobel Prize Winners

UC San Francisco has been home to a total of five Nobel laureates:

Shinya Yamanaka (2012)

Shinya Yamanaka, MD, PhD

Shinya Yamanaka, MD, PhD, won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of how to transform ordinary adult skin cells into cells that, like embryonic stem cells, are capable of developing into any cell in the human body. He shared the prize with John B. Gurdon of the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, England.

Yamanaka – a senior investigator at the UCSF-affiliated Gladstone Institutes, a UCSF anatomy professor and director of the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA) at Kyoto University – discovered in 2006 that by adding just four genes into adult skin cells in mice, he could induce the cells to become like embryonic stem cells. He called them induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells. In 2007, he announced that he had done the same with human adult skin cells.

Embryonic stem cells – which are “pluripotent” because they can develop into any type of cell – hold tremendous promise for regenerative medicine, in which damaged organs and tissues can be replaced or repaired. Many in the science community consider the use of stem cells to be key to the future treatment and eradication of a number of diseases, such as diabetes, blindness and Parkinson's disease.

Read more about Yamanaka's 2012 Nobel Prize.

Elizabeth Blackburn (2009)

Elizabeth H. Blackburn, PhD

Elizabeth H. Blackburn, PhD, received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Blackburn, a professor in the UCSF Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, shared the award with Carol W. Greider of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Jack W. Szostak of Harvard Medical School.

The scientists discovered an enzyme that plays a key role in normal cell function, as well as in cell aging and most cancers. The enzyme, called telomerase, produces tiny units of DNA that seal off the ends of chromosomes, which contain the body’s genes. These DNA units – named telomeres – protect the integrity of the genes and maintain chromosomal stability and accurate cell division. They also determine the number of times a cell divides — and thus determine the lifespan of cells.

The scientists’ research sparked a whole field of inquiry into the possibility that telomerase could be reactivated to treat such age-related diseases as blindness, cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases, and deactivated to treat cancer, in which it generally is overactive.

Read more about Blackburn's 2009 Nobel Prize. 

Stanley Prusiner (1997)

Stanley B. Prusiner, MD

Stanley B. Prusiner, MD, received the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of a novel disease-causing agent – a protein he named the prion (PREE-on) in 1982.

The prion – added to the list of well known infectious agents including bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites – causes rare neurodegenerative diseases, such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, and “mad cow” disease in cattle. The discovery has informed research into the role of misprocessed proteins in more common brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Prusiner is a professor of neurology and director of the Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases at UCSF.

J. Michael Bishop and Harold E. Varmus (1989)

J. Michael Bishop, MD
Harold E. Varmus, MD

J. Michael Bishop, MD, and Harold Varmus, MD, received the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of proto-oncogenes, showing that normal cellular genes can be converted to cancer genes. This work led to the recognition that all cancer probably arises from damage to normal genes and provided new strategies for the detection and treatment of cancer.

In Bishop's 40 years of service to UCSF, including 10 as the University's chancellor, he has provided a model of distinguished scholarly inquiry, thoughtful academic leadership and deep commitment to the public good. He retired as chancellor in 2009, but remains a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

Varmus began his postdoctoral studies in Bishop's lab in 1970, and it soon became a research partnership that led to the Nobel discovery. After serving on the UCSF faculty for more than two decades, Varmus went on to serve as director of the National Institutes of Health and is currently director of the National Cancer Institute.