Shaw Prize laureates set great store by curiosity

Franz-Ulrich Hartl and Arthur Horwich made discovery about cells essentially by 'tinkering'

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 September, 2012, 4:17am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 September, 2012, 4:25am

For 20 years, professors Franz-Ulrich Hartl and Arthur Horwich loved to tinker with the functioning of protein in body cells.

Eventually, that curiosity-driven journeying led the pair - Shaw laureates in life science and medicine respectively - to major breakthroughs that are tipped to advance the search for cures for Alzheimer's, Lou Gehrig's and Parkinson's diseases.

And that is why governments should support basic scientific research, and people should support governments that do so, the award-winning researchers say.

"It was not foreseeable that this [discovery] could happen," Hartl, 55, said. "We were just interested in how the cell works.

"I came more strongly from a medical motivation, but I cannot say that I was primarily interested in curing a disease."

Hartl, director of the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Germany, and Horwich, of Yale University, are in Hong Kong  to receive the Shaw Prize, Asia's answer to the Nobels.

The duo discovered "machine" proteins that help strings of amino acids fold into a shape needed for them to take part in basic bodily processes such as breathing, cell regeneration and muscle contraction.

They claimed their US$1 million award from the Shaw Foundation at the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai on Monday.

Two decades of what they call "tinker-toy" and "curiosity-driven" studies on protein folding have opened up new avenues of research, particularly in genetic and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's.

Horwich pointed to the growing burden of debilitating conditions like Alzheimer's, which he said was probably linked to protein misfolding, as populations age. "That's the reason why basic research is important and why governments like Hong Kong or the United States or Germany support basic research," Hartl said.

"They hope eventually something will result [from it], but there is no guarantee… But the whole collective of this basic research8 enterprise has shown, time and again, that important applications and progress result from just curiosity-driven investigations."

Horwich emphasised the role of research in improving lives. "Aids was … an immediate death sentence and now people can live for years if they get the appropriate treatment."

Drug firms are investing billions in basic scientific research in the hunt for a cure for neurodegenerative diseases, he said.

Well-resourced academic research laboratories of a dozen or so staff are often run on about US$1 million a year.

The two estimated it would be another 10 to 20 years before any cures might come about. In the meantime, they said, governments should support young researchers, as they themselves had been lucky to get funding.

The Shaw Prize, created by media mogul and philanthropist Run Run Shaw, offers US$1 million annual awards in three fields: life science and medicine, astronomy and mathematical sciences.