Hong Kong’s 2017 Shaw Prize honours work by five international researchers

Two bag award in life science and medicine for discoveries which can lead to advancements in treatment of cancer and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2017, 11:18pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2017, 11:30pm

Two international scientists are the latest recipients of Hong Kong’s Shaw Prize in life science and medicine, for their discovery of biological engines which can lead to breakthroughs in the treatment of cancer and neurodegenerative disorders, among other diseases.

Ian Gibbons, a visiting researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and Ronald Vale, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, were honoured for their findings on two families of motor proteins, namely kinesin and dynein.

The annual Shaw Prize, founded by the late Hong Kong philanthropist Sir Run Run Shaw in 2002, is awarded in the categories of astronomy, life science and medicine, and mathematical sciences. Each carries a monetary award of US$1.2 million (HK$9.3 million).

The astronomy prize went to Simon White, director of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Germany, for his contributions to understanding structure formation in the universe. Its mathematical sciences equivalent was given to Janos Kollar, a professor from Princeton University, and Claire Voisin, a professor from College de France, for their work in many central areas of algebraic geometry.

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Professor Chan Wai-yee, council member of the Shaw Prize, said kinesin, discovered by Gibbons around 1990, played a role in the division of cells.

“If the kinesin is not working, chromosomes [strands of DNA that are encoded with genes] will not be pulled apart and the cells cannot divide,” Chan explained.

So if one could design a drug keeping kinesin from working, cancer cells could also stop dividing, the Chinese University biomedical sciences professor said. He added that the method would be “less destructive” to the patient than most treatments now.

For dynein, discovered by Vale around 2000, Chan explained it helped in the transport of neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers, between neurons.

Neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, occur when such transmissions break down.

Chan said if anormal, functioning dynein could be synthesised and inserted into cells, it could correct the problem.