2022 Albany Prize Awarded for Pivotal Discoveries in Gene Regulation

  • Pioneering biochemists C. David Allis, PhD, and Michael Grunstein, PhD, share coveted award
  • Prize recognizes groundbreaking work on the role of histones in gene expression
  • Discoveries have been critical to the development of new approaches to treating cancer, congenital diseases, and neurological disorders

The 2022 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research has been awarded to two world-renowned scientists whose work has yielded groundbreaking biomedical and genetic discoveries with strong implications for the treatment of cancer, congenital diseases, and neurological disorders.

The awardees, announced today at a special ceremony, are:

  • C. David Allis, PhD, Joy and Jack Fishman Professor and head of the Laboratory of Chromatin Biology and Epigenetics at The Rockefeller University, New York City
  • Michael Grunstein, PhD, distinguished professor emeritus, Department of Biological Chemistry at the David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles

Drs. Allis and Grunstein received the award for their pioneering work in defining the relationship between chromosomal histone modifications and gene expression, and in linking these basic science discoveries to human biology and disease.

“Albany Prize recipients are among the most distinguished and accomplished in their fields, renowned for their significant contributions to science and medicine,” said Vincent Verdile, MD ’84, dean emeritus of Albany Medical College and chair of the National Selection Committee, who presented the prize. “Drs. Allis and Grunstein are no exception. Their seminal work elucidating the role of histones in gene expression has been key to the development of new ways to study and treat cancers and other diseases, including leukemia, pediatric glioblastoma, sarcoma, congenital heart disease, and neurodevelopmental disorders like Rett syndrome and autism.”

In 2000, the Marty and Dorothy Silverman Foundation dedicated $50 million for the sole purpose of awarding the $500,000 Albany Prize annually for 100 years. It is intended to encourage and recognize extraordinary and sustained contributions to improving health care and promoting innovative biomedical research.

Histones – proteins that act as microscopic “spools” around which DNA wraps itself to fit within the nucleus of a cell – were not an obvious research subject when Drs. Allis and Grunstein first began studying them decades ago. At the time, it was thought they acted simply as a packaging material for DNA.

But in the 1970s, Dr. Grunstein and his team at UCLA pioneered the genetic analysis of histones in yeast, showing for the first time that histones are regulators of gene activity in living cells. Meanwhile, focusing on chromatin – the building block of chromosomes made up of DNA, histones, and other proteins – Dr. Allis used biochemical approaches to establish that enzymes that modify histone proteins regulate gene expression.

Genes that are expressed (“switched on”) become important for recognizable characteristics, like blue eyes or brown hair, or the likelihood of developing certain diseases.

Through their complementary studies, Drs. Allis and Grunstein discovered that by controlling gene expression, histones help determine how cells develop, behave, and respond to their environment.

This revelation is the basis of a field now known as epigenetics – the study of how development, behaviors, and the environment can cause changes that affect the way genes work. Epigenetic changes, unlike genetic mutations, are often reversible and do not change the DNA sequence, but they can change how the body reads a DNA sequence.

Dysfunctional histones or alterations in epigenetic regulators contribute to tumor growth and spread, as well as to congenital and other diseases. By identifying the mechanisms that turn particular genes on or off, researchers can develop therapies targeting the mutated regulators. Patterns of histone modifications in cells have also been used to predict clinical outcomes, such as tumor recurrence in prostate cancer.

Laying the groundwork for additional research, the pioneering studies led by Drs. Allis and Grunstein have unveiled the complex role of histone modifications in gene expression, the devastating consequences of their dysregulation, and their unique ability to be targeted in the treatment of human diseases.

“I am pleased that our research and its impacts on science and potential new therapies are being recognized,” Dr. Grunstein said. “I am honored to receive and share the Albany Prize, together with Professor Allis.”

“I am absolutely thrilled and honored to receive this award along with Michael Grunstein,” said Dr. Allis. “Our work is the product of a genuine and profound desire to seek scientific truths and expand our knowledge of ourselves and the world we live in. You study a basic, fundamental problem, and reach helpful conclusions, and all of the sudden it has implications for human health and human biology. This is the real payoff. For me it doesn’t get any better than that.”

The Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, celebrating its 21st anniversary, was established in 2000 by the late Morris “Marty” Silverman, a New York City businessman and philanthropist raised in Troy, N.Y., to honor scientists whose work has demonstrated significant outcomes that offer medical value of national or international importance. A dedicated $50 million gift commitment from the Marty and Dorothy Silverman Foundation provides for the prize to be awarded annually for 100 years.

Three previous Nobel Prize winners have been among the ranks of researchers honored, and eight Albany Prize recipients have gone on to win the Nobel Prize, including James P. Allison, PhD, for his development of immune checkpoint blockade to treat cancer; Shinya Yamanaka, MD, PhD, a leading stem cell scientist; Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, who discovered the molecular nature of telomeres; Bruce Beutler, MD, and the late Ralph Steinman, MD, for their discoveries regarding the detailed workings of the immune system; Robert Lefkowitz, MD, for his work on cell receptors; and Emmanuelle Charpentier, PhD, and Jennifer Doudna, PhD, for development of a method of genome editing.