Medal in Hand, Prusiner's Sights Are on Conquering Brain Diseases

In a White House ceremony on Nov. 17, President Barack Obama told the recipients of the 2009 National Medal of Science and National Medal of Technology and Innovation that they have “truly revolutionized the world in ways that are profoundly important to people in their day-to-day lives.”

The “achievements of the men and women who are onstage today stand as a testament to the ingenuity, to their zeal for discovery, and to the willingness to give of themselves and to sacrifice in order to expand the reach of human understanding,” said Obama.

Among those recipients was UCSF Nobel laureate Stanley B. Prusiner, MD, director of the Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases. Prusiner was one of 10 scientists awarded the National Medal of Science. Three other individuals and one team were named as recipients of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

Sitting on the podium in the East Room ceremony with his fellow awardees, Prusiner looked out on an audience that included the scientists’ families, members of the President’s Cabinet, directors of federal institutes, and two members of Congress—Senator Arlen Specter (D-Pennsylvania) and Congressman Bart Gordon (D-Tennessee). The video of the award ceremony is posted on the White House website.

Receiving the medal was “a great honor,”said Prusiner, who described the experience with the President as “so special.”

“I was in extraordinary company,” he said, citing colleagues who developed the semiconductors and microprocessors that have propelled the Information Age, modeled the complex processes that shape the Earth’s climate and conducted studies on laws of the universe.

“I was heartened by President Obama’s remarks about the importance of attracting and energizing new generations of scientists,” Prusiner said. “In virtually every area of science, including the biomedical sciences, there are the incredible opportunities to make great strides in the coming decades. My hope is that many young people will become inspired to devote their lives to exploring the last frontier of the human body—the brain.

“We have made great strides in understanding the proteins underlying such devastating diseases as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, frontotemporal dementias, traumatic brain injury, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and prion diseases,” he said, “but we have much more to learn.

“No effective treatments have been introduced for any neurodegenerative disease since L-dopa was introduced for Parkinson’s disease in 1967. And even that drug, while effective in treating symptoms until the body becomes resistant to it, does not stop progression of the disease.”

There are opportunities for exploring normal brain function, too, he noted, in terms of learning and memory. “Insights into these brain functions are helping scientists understand what sometimes goes wrong – and how we can use this knowledge to develop therapies for treating learning disorders, behavioral diseases, developmental disorders like autism and cerebral palsy, and neurodegenerative diseases.

“Who knows—some of these young scientists might someday end up working at UCSF, leading teams that will be in the neuroscience building we are currently constructing at UCSF Mission Bay. This building will bring together some of the best scientists in the world to work on these very prevalent diseases of the brain. The opportunity for major progress is tremendous.”

Photo by Ryan K. Morris Photography

Related Links:

Remarks by the President in Presenting National Medals of Science and National Medals of Technology and Innovation

In White House Ceremony, Prusiner Receives National Medal
UCSF Today, November 17, 2010

Could They All Be Prion Diseases?
Science magazine, December 4, 2009

Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases