Columbia's Michael Sheetz Shares the Prestigious Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for 2012

Eric Sharfstein
September 09, 2012

Michael Sheetz of Columbia University was named co-winner of this year’s Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for discoveries related to cytoskeletal motor proteins, agents that move cargo within cells, contract muscles, and enable cell movements, the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation announced today.

Sheetz, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor in Columbia’s department of biological sciences, joins with James Spudich of Stanford University’s School of Medicine and Ronald Vale of the University of California, San Francisco, as winners of this year’s research award. Sheetz also serves as director of the Mechanobiology Institute of Singapore at the National University of Singapore.

Biological Sciences Department Chair and Professor Stuart Firestein said, "We are all quite proud that our colleague Michael Sheetz has been honored with the Lasker Award for Basic Medical research. Mike's work on the discovery of proteins that move molecules and organelles around inside of cells provided an answer to a long standing problem in biology and opened up years of new research avenues. Thus, it is both historically significant and a modern breakthrough."

By developing systems that allow reconstitution of motility from its constituent parts, Sheetz and his co-winners established ways to study molecular motors in detail. These accomplishments enabled the discovery of the motor protein kinesin and unveiled the steps by which these agents convert chemical energy into mechanical work. The miniscule motors underlie numerous vital processes.

These breakthroughs lay the foundation for many potential medical applications. Defects in genes for cardiac myosin can produce a disorder called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a leading cause of death in young athletes. Agents that might improve cardiac myosin performance are under investigation for this and other heart conditions. Flawed kinesin has been implicated in at least one neurological illness and, because kinesin is essential for cell division, which runs amok in cancer, chemotherapeutic drugs that target kinesins are being developed.

Further, virtually all cells use the myosin machinery to pull on their local environment to both sense and create the proper mechanical properties. Cancer, aging and cardiovascular disease all involve major alterations in the mechanical properties of the cells and tissue.

“I am deeply honored to receive the Lasker with friends and wish to thank the many people in my lab and our collaborators who contributed so much to the overall effort,” said Sheetz.

The Lasker Awards, which carry an honorarium of $250,000 for each category, will be presented at a ceremony on Friday, Sept. 21, in New York City. Since the inception of the Lasker Awards in 1945, 81 Lasker laureates have gone on to win the Nobel Prize, 29 in the last two decades.