Ron Vale Receives 2017 Shaw Prize for Motor Protein Discoveries

By Pete Farley

Ronald D. “Ron” Vale, PhD, professor and vice chair of cellular and molecular pharmacology at UC San Francisco, is a winner of the 2017 Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine for his seminal research on motor proteins, molecular machines that perform functions crucial to life.

Vale shares the prize, announced Tuesday, with Ian R. Gibbons, PhD, FRS, a visiting researcher in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at UC Berkeley. Both were cited “for their discovery of microtubule-associated motor proteins: engines that drive nerve cell growth and chromosome inheritance essential to human development.”

Ron Vale
Photo by Ryan Anson/HHMI

“Ron’s acclaimed research on molecular motors has revealed the workings of these exquisite cellular machines, which play a fundamental role in life. Their beauty and complexity make it possible for each of our cells to function,” said UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood, MBBS. “The Shaw Prize is a much-deserved recognition for this unique and profound scientific work.”

The motor protein called kinesin (“kin-EE-sin”), which Vale discovered in the mid-1980s, transports vital components within cells along tracks called microtubules, and also separates chromosomes during cell division. Malfunctioning kinesin has been implicated in Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, the most common inherited neurological disorder, and in polycystic kidney disease, among other disorders.

Twenty years earlier, Gibbons discovered dynein, a complementary motor protein that moves along microtubules in the opposite direction to kinesin. Defects in dynein function are associated with a range of neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Often called the “Nobel of the East,” the annual Shaw Prizes, which also recognize groundbreaking work by mathematicians and astronomers, were established in 2002 by Hong Kong media magnate and philanthropist Run Run Shaw, and first awarded in 2004. The prizes are awarded to individuals who have achieved significant breakthroughs in academic and scientific research or applications, and whose work has resulted in a positive and profound impact on mankind. Each prize bears a monetary award of $1.2 million.

Vale, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, joins five previous Shaw laureates from UCSF: Herbert Boyer (2004), Yuet-Wai Kan (2004), Shinya Yamanaka (2008), David Julius (2010), and Peter Walter (2014).

The awards presentation ceremony is scheduled for Sept. 26 in Hong Kong.

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