Kaelin wins prestigious international research award

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Dana-Farber physician-scientist William G. Kaelin, MD, is one of five recipients of a 2010 Canada Gairdner Award, among the world's most prestigious medical research honors. The announcement came this morning in Toronto.

Kaelin and two other scientists working independently are sharing a Canada Gairdner International Award for identifying the molecular mechanisms that allow cells to detect a shortage of oxygen and respond by making new red blood cells and blood vessels.

The research may pave the way for therapies that manipulate oxygen to treat diseases ranging from heart disease and anemia to cancer.

"I am very happy and proud, and this is a very nice recognition of the people who have done excellent work in the lab over the years," says Kaelin. "Having your peers and people whom you admire appreciate the quality of your work is a wonderful experience."

Kaelin, who is a member of the Department of Medical Oncology, became an independent investigator at Dana-Farber in 1992, and has been an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute since 1998.

"Bill has made groundbreaking discoveries that have transformed our understanding of many forms of cancer," says Dana-Farber President Edward J. Benz Jr., MD. "His work has also pointed the way to new strategies to find better therapies for these tumors. He is very deserving of this recognition and has also brought honor to Dana-Farber."

Kaelin was elected in 2007 to the Institute of Medicine, a non-governmental body that gives advice on health and science policy. Members are elected based on their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. In 2001 he won a Paul Marks Prize for Cancer Research from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

The Canada Gairdner Awards were established in 1959 to recognize and reward researchers whose work contributes significantly to improving the quality of human life. Nearly one-quarter of past recipients have gone on to win a Nobel Prize.

The awards, which include a $100,000 cash prize, will be presented in October to the seven recipients. The co-recipients, along with Kaelin, are Gregg L. Semenza, MD, PhD, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Peter J. Ratcliffe, MD, of the University of Oxford. A total of five scientists received 2010 Gairdner International Awards.

Tumor suppressor genes, so called because they help to prevent normal cells from becoming cancerous, have long been a research focus in the Kaelin lab. Mutations in tumor suppressor genes are a cause of many types of cancer. Kaelin's long-term goal is to lay the foundation for the development of new anticancer therapies based on understanding the normal functions of such genes.

Kaelin and his colleagues have been studying von Hippel Lindau syndrome, a rare disorder caused by a mutation in a tumor suppressor gene that makes patients likely to develop kidney cancer.

Kaelin found that the tumor suppressor gene mutation causes kidney tumors to churn out large amounts of a protein, VEGF, which helps provide the tumors with an extra blood supply to fuel the cancer's growth.

Essentially, the mutation causes the tumor cells to behave as if they were starved of oxygen, which spurs the overproduction of VEGF to recruit new blood vessels to nourish the tumor.

Kaelin's work, along with that of his two co-awardees, showed that this process is regulated by a protein called Hypoxia-inducible factor 1-alpha. Manipulating this factor with drugs is currently being investigated as potential treatments for anemia, heart attacks, strokes, and cancer.

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