April 19, 2005 - The Japan Prize, recognized in Japan as the highest honor a scientist can attain, will be awarded tomorrow, April 20, in Tokyo by Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress of Japan to three individuals, marking the culmination of a week-long celebration of innovation in science and technology called Japan Prize Week. Erkki Ruoslahti, M.D., Ph.D., distinguished professor of San Diego ’s The Burnham Institute, is one of three individuals to be honored with the award this year, the only American to be recognized, and the first native of Finland to win the prize.
“The Japan Prize is an international prize awarded to scientists and technologists who have made original and outstanding achievements in their fields and have contributed to the peace and prosperity of mankind,” said Consul Yoshiyuki Isoda of the Consulate General of Japan. “Dr. Erkki Ruoslahti made important and fundamental contributions in cell biology by elucidating molecular mechanisms of cell adhesion.”
Erkki Ruoslahti, M.D., Ph.D., is the 2005 recipient of The Japan Prize in Cell Biology for his discovery of the RGD peptide -- a simple, powerful cell recognition system that defines how cells connect and communicate with each other, and why normal cells die and cancer cells survive when this system ultimately fails. The research that would lead to the RGD discovery started in the 1970s when Dr. Ruoslahti initially began to study how individual cells connect to their surroundings and how these connections differ between normal cells and cancer cells. After 15 years of work, Dr. Ruoslahti discovered the RGD binding site on the extracellular matrix, the protein scaffold that hold tissues together. This tiny sequence of three-amino acids is found on the surface of many proteins within the body. Dr. Ruoslahti also identified cellular receptors that recognize RGD. This work showed that the RGD sequence and its receptors mediate cell adhesion, the process through which cells recognize, adhere to, and move past objects in their environment. The system constitutes a molecular “glue” that holds cells together. The many flavors of this recognition system tell cells where they should be in the body.
Medications based on Dr. Ruoslahti’s RGD discovery are already extending the lives of thousands of patients, and many more new therapies based on his seminal work are in clinical testing. These therapies include clot-busting drugs that prevent platelet aggregation, providing a treatment for heart disease and stroke, as well as experimental drugs for blocking blood vessel growth into tumors, thus starving tumors to death.
“Though Dr. Ruoslahti has authored hundreds of impressive research publications, the careers of scientists can generally be distilled to one or two seminal observations that fundamentally changed the course of scientific research,” said John Reed, M.D., Ph.D., president and CEO of The Burnham Institute. “Dr. Ruoslahti’s discovery of the mechanism of cell adhesion represents that pearl, that kernel of insight and vision that changed the course of a field of scientific inquiry and sparked a revolution of subsequent follow-on discovery and applied research.”
“The greatest compliment in science is that a discovery becomes common knowledge, when a result has been accepted as fact that can be referenced by peers without citation,” said Dr. Erkki Ruoslahti. “This has certainly happened with RGD.”
Dr. Ruoslahti earned his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Helsinki, Finland. He held academic appointments at the University of Helsinki and City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, California. Dr. Ruoslahti was recruited to The Burnham Institute in 1979 where he conducted most of his seminal research and discoveries in cell adhesion. He served as president and CEO of The Burnham Institute from 1989 to 2002, growing the Institute under his direction from 100 to nearly 500 employees. He was appointed Distinguished Professor in 2002.