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Laskers highlight addiction, RNA work.

Laskers highlight addiction, RNA work

A physician, a molecular biologist and a biochemist received the 43rd annual Albert Lasker Medical Research Awards, announced this week by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation in New York City.

For his pioneering work in the medical treatment of opiate addiction, Vincent P. Dole of Rockefeller University in New York City won the clinical research category. Molecular biologist Phillip A. Sharp of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and biochemist Thomas R. Cech of the University of Colorado in Boulder shared the award in basic medicine for discovering unexpected roles of RNA.

One day in the early 1960s, Dole recalls, he looked out at drug-devastated Harlem and thought, "Someone should do something scientific about it." He soon abandoned other research and established with his wife, the late psychiatrist Marie Nyswander, the first successful medical treatment program for opiate addicts in the United States.

Dole and Nyswander tested various narcotics and found, to their surprise, that "on methadone, [the addicts] became totally different people," recalls Dole, now 75. He postulated that methadone, a known opiate painkiller, acted on the same receptor molecules in the brain as did heroin and other opiates. He then mathematically determined the number of these receptors.

Methadone is still the main treatment for opiate addicts in the United States. This long-acting dryg helps prevent withdrawal symptoms by lingering in opiate-responsive tissues, blocking the normal opiate action sites. Dole emphasizes that his wife contributed as much as he to these achievements. "The only reason I'm standing alone is that she's not here to stand with me," he says.

Sharp is honored for "his series of revelations regarding the ability of RNA processing to convert DNA's massive store of genetic data to biological use." Sharp, now 44, discovered that DNA's genetic information is interrupted by apparently meaningless DNA sequences called "introns," which are reoved after the RNA copy is made from the DNA. Before Sharp's finding scientists had assumed the messenger RNA's genetic sequence would correspond one-for-one with that of its parent DNA strand.

Sharp's work is crucial to understanding how cells and viruses regulate their genes, a fundamental process in cell specialization, carcinogenesis, growth, healing, aging and viral diseases such as AIDS. Sharp also found a splicing role for some small nuclear-RNA particles.

Cech is cited "of rhis revolutionary research revealing the enzymatic role of RNA and opening a new universe of research in molecular biology." Comments biologist Larry Gold of the University of Colorado, "He discovered something that changed everybody's understanding of enzymology as a protein-based system."

In the early 1980s, Cech was trying to purify the enzyme supposedly at work in a splicing reaction. Instead, he "eventually found that it was RNA itself," says Cech, now 40. Cech's discovery also led to the idea that the evolution of life may have begun when the first RNA molecule appeared. In addition, Cech says, "it now appears that there are some very important human pathogens that use RNA catalysis to do their dirty deeds. So it is possible that inhibitors of this process will have important clinical application."
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Title Annotation:Albert Lasker Medical Research Awards
Author:Wickelgren, Ingrid
Publication:Science News
Date:Nov 19, 1988
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