Maquat Receives Canada’s Top Award for Excellence in Biomedical Research

Mar. 25, 2015

Lynne E. Maquat, Ph.D. received the 2015 Gairdner International Award for the discovery and mechanistic studies of nonsense-mediated mRNA decay, a cellular quality control mechanism that derails the production of unwanted proteins in the body that can disrupt normal processes and initiate disease. She is one of five scientists honored with the award, which is given every year to recognize the achievement of medical researchers whose work contributes significantly to improving the quality of human life.

The J. Lowell Orbison Endowed Chair and Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of Rochester Medical Center, Maquat is known around the world for her work on nonsense-mediated mRNA decay, which is critically important in both normal and disease states. She is considered the uncontested pioneer on the subject and in 2011 was elected to the National Academy of Sciences for her exceptional research, which has been published in more than 130 peer-reviewed scientific articles.

Maquat is the first scientist from upstate New York to receive the Gairdner International Award, which is recognized for its rigorous peer-led selection process. A panel of active Canadian scientists reviews all nominations and passes their recommendations to a board of two dozen senior scientists from across Canada, the United States, Europe, Australia and Japan. After in-depth study and review, board members cast votes for the nominees whose achievements rise above all others in their field. According to the Gairdner Foundation, of the 313 winners to date, 82 have gone on to receive a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, a testament to the quality of the awardees.

“This award acknowledges Dr. Maquat’s commitment to scientific excellence and on behalf of the entire University community I would like to congratulate her on this wonderful honor,” said University of Rochester President Joel Seligman. “Through her outstanding research and her dedication to mentoring others she is making a difference in people’s lives both inside and outside the laboratory. We’re extremely proud that she is representing Rochester as a Gairdner International Award winner.”

Nonsense-mediated mRNA decay is the body’s way of proof reading mRNAs, which take genetic instructions from DNA and use them to create proteins that carry out our body’s functions. Sometimes mRNAs are faulty and, if left intact, would lead to the creation of toxic proteins that cause disease. Nonsense-mediated mRNA decay is like an inspector who examines products coming off an assembly line and removes broken or damaged goods. By destroying flawed mRNAs, nonsense-mediated mRNA decay ensures that normal, healthy proteins are created.

Maquat discovered this mechanism while studying an inherited form of anemia called beta thalassemia. She had flown to Jerusalem to meet a hematologist who obtained bone marrow samples from affected patients and analyzed the cells to figure out why they lacked a protein necessary to produce hemoglobin, which helps red blood cells carry oxygen to the body’s tissues. In the process she identified nonsense-mediated mRNA decay and has worked tirelessly to understand the intricacies of this pathway ever since.  

“In receiving the Gairdner International Award, Dr. Maquat joins an elite group of scientists whose fundamental discoveries have profound, global impact. By identifying new roles for RNA, her work broadens our understanding and promises new therapeutic approaches for virtually all disease processes, from cancer, to heart disease, to neurologic disorders,” said Mark B. Taubman, M.D., Dean of the School of Medicine and Dentistry and CEO of the University of Rochester Medical Center. “Her passion and tenacious curiosity inspires the next generation of scientists, not only here in Rochester, but around the world.”

Maquat joined the University of Rochester Medical Center in 2000 after 18 years at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute. She is the founding director of the University’s Center for RNA Biology, which spans the Medical Center and the University’s River Campus. Having spent her career advocating for young women in the sciences, Maquat also founded the University of Rochester Graduate Women in Science program in 2003 to address the “leaky pipeline” in science, which describes how fewer women than men who earn a Ph.D. degree in science go on to use that degree in a career.

A member of the RNA Society since its formation in 1993, Maquat was honored with the society’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Service in 2010. She was also elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2006. Last year she was named the 2014 Athena Award winner, presented annually by the Women's Council of the Rochester Business Alliance to recognize women who excel in their professions, give back to their communities and mentor other women for leadership roles.

The Gairdner Foundation was created by James Arthur Gairdner to honor and reward those who conduct remarkable health research and to stimulate interest in health and science among young people. Along with past and present award recipients, Maquat will travel to Canadian high schools and universities in the fall to talk about her work and answer questions about building a career in science.

“It is a tremendous honor to receive the 2015 Gairdner International Award,” said Maquat.  “This award results from the efforts of many dedicated students and post-docs with whom I’ve worked in my lab over the years, as well as the many scientists who came before me and laid the groundwork for our research. With this award, I hope to inspire others who like being creative and solving puzzles to pursue a career in research science, especially girls and young women who might underestimate their abilities.”