C. David Allis, a pioneer in the field of epigenetics whose discovery that chemical modifications of DNA-packaging proteins play a key role in regulating the activity of individual genes, will be awarded the 2014 Japan Prize in Life Sciences. The announcement, by the Japan Prize Foundation, was made at a press conference in Tokyo this morning.
The Japan Prize, worth approximately half a million dollars, is among the most prestigious international prizes in science.
“The Japan Prize teaches us to strive to help make the world a better place,” Allis says. “I have tried to do this through my science, and I am pleased that some of my lab’s discoveries are helping people live healthier lives. Words cannot express how deeply honored and humbled I am to be receiving this prize.”
Allis is recognized for the discovery of histone modifications as fundamental regulators of gene expression. Histones are DNA-packaging proteins that act as spools around which a cell’s DNA is coiled. Allis’s discovery that chemical “tags” bind to specific sections of histone proteins in order to activate or silence nearby genes has ignited the field of epigenetics, a relatively new area of study which explores the inheritance of physical changes that cannot be traced back to mutations in the DNA sequence.
Over the last decade, Allis and his colleagues have provided evidence that suggests that patterns or combinations of these histone modifications represent another layer of gene regulation that takes place away from DNA itself. Indeed, recent studies have identified epigenetic changes as a factor in the development of some types of cancer, providing the basis for the development of new classes of anti-cancer drugs. Histone modifications have also been found to play an important role in cell reprogramming and are expected to contribute to the field of regenerative medicine.
“David is an exceptional scientist and mentor whose studies have added an entirely new dimension to our understanding of cellular regulation and the relationship between genes and disease,” says Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Rockefeller’s president. “It is enormously gratifying to see him honored with this prestigious international award.”
The Japan Foundation awards the Japan Prize every year to scientists and researchers in two categories who, regardless of nationality, have made substantial contributions to their fields as well as to peace and prosperity of mankind. Since its inception in 1985 the Japan Prize has been awarded to 81 people from 13 countries. Alongside Allis, Yasuharu Suematsu of the Tokyo Institute of Technology was awarded this year’s prize in electronics, information and communication for his research on semiconductor lasers in optical fiber communication.
Allis is the Joy and Jack Fishman Professor and head of Laboratory of Chromatin Biology and Epigenetics. He received his Ph.D. in 1978 from Indiana University and performed postdoctoral work at the University of Rochester. He held academic positions at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas and at the University of Virginia before joining Rockefeller in 2003.
Allis is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the recipient of the 2011 Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award, the 2008 ASBMB-Merck Award, the 2007 Gairdner Award, the 2004 Wiley Prize, the 2003 Massry Prize and the 2002 Dickson Prize in Biomedical Sciences.