Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Medicine awarded to Sir Richard Peto

27 January 2011

The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences has awarded the 2008 Dr H.P. Heineken Prize for Biochemistry and Biophysics to Professor Jack W. Szostak, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Harvard Medical School and the Department of Molecular Biology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts, United States, for 'his highly original insights into the fundamental processes of life'.

The topic

Biochemist Jack Szostak has been responsible for a series of scientific breakthroughs. Each discovery has concerned the fundamental processes of life and evolution. For example, he is one of the forefathers of today's genetic research with 'knockout mice', genetically engineered mice in which one or more genes have been turned off. This method, which has played a major role in many areas of biomedical research, can be traced back to the early 1980s, when Szostak first aired his revolutionary ideas about the crucial function of telomeres, the specialised DNA sequences at the tips of chromosomes, in cell division. His ideas were later proven correct. Szostak and Elizabeth Blackburn (Heineken Prize for Medicine, 2004) conducted pioneering research on telomeres, which have turned out to play a key role in cancer prevention.

Szostak has also developed new techniques to control the evolution of biological molecules. Known as in vitro selection, this technique has recently made it possible to evolve a new enzyme that does not occur in nature.

Today, Szostak is focusing on the origins of life. He has already shown that minerals may have acted as a catalyst for assembling the building blocks of the first cell structures.

The laureate

Jack Szostak (1952) was only nineteen when he was awarded his B.S. in cell biology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He obtained his PhD in biochemistry at Cornell University (Ithaca, New York, USA), where he worked as a research assistant until 1979. He then moved to Harvard Medical School, where he has been a professor with the Department of Genetics since 1988. In that same year, he accepted an appointment with the Department of Molecular Biology at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital, where he became an Alex Rich Distinguished Investigator in 2000. In 1998, Szostak became an Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Szostak has been granted numerous patents and is a member of several American academies and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). His previous awards include the 2006 Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (together with Elizabeth Blackburn and others). Szostak is praised on all sides for his versatility and originality.

Examples of key publications

  • Szostak, J.W, Blackburn, E.H., Cloning yeast telomeres on linear plasmid vectors. In: Cell 1982; 29: 245-55
  • Szostak, J.W., Orr-Weaver, T.L., Rothstein, R.J., Stahl, F.J., The double-strand-break repair model for recombination. In: Cell 1983; 33: 25-35
  • Murray, A.W., Szostak , J.W., Construction of artificial chromosomes in yeast. In: Nature 1983; 305: 189-193
  • Roberts, R.W., Szostak, J.W., RNA-peptide fusions for the in vitro selection of peptides and proteins. In: Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 1997; 94: 12297-12302
  • Seelig, B., Szostak, J.W., Selection and evolution of enzymes from a partially randomized non-catalytic scaffold. In: Nature 2007; 448: 828-831.

The prize

The Dr H.P. Heineken Prize for Biochemistry and Biophysics (named for Alfred Heineken's father) is the oldest of the Heineken Prizes and was established in 1964. Previous winners include Christian de Duve (Nobel Prize for Medicine 1974), Piet Borst, Michael Berridge, Paul Nurse (Nobel Prize for Medicine 2001), Andrew Fire (Nobel Prize for Medicine 2006) and Sir Alec Jeffreys. The jury was chaired by Rob Kaptein.

The presentation ceremony

The Heineken Prizes are presented every other year during an extraordinary meeting of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. This year the meeting will be held on Thursday 2 October at the Beurs van Berlage Building in Amsterdam.