In recognition of her pioneering research on mammalian skin and adult stem cells, Elaine Fuchs, the Rebecca C. Lancefield Professor at The Rockefeller University, has received the E.B. Wilson Medal, the highest scientific honor bestowed by the American Society for Cell Biology. The medal will be presented at the society’s annual meeting in California on December 15.
Named for the Edmund Beecher Wilson, considered by some to be the first modern cell biologist in the United States, this award recognizes far-reaching contributions to cell biology over a lifetime of science.
“Over the past 30 years, Dr. Fuchs has performed groundbreaking work that has led a revolution in our understanding of the biology of mammalian skin and revealed broad paradigms that regulate tissue regenerative stem cells across organ systems,” writes Amy Wagers, professor of stem cell and regenerative biology at Harvard University, who nominated Fuchs for the medal.
As a postdoc working in Howard Green’s lab at MIT and then on her own as an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago, Fuchs first tackled the keratins, a family of fibrous proteins that form into tough intermediate filaments holding together the outer surface of mammalian skin. Fuchs was the first to biochemically characterize keratin and then identify and clone the keratin genes and their promoters. Moving back and forth from mouse models to human culture, the Fuchs lab was later able to identify the keratin gene mutations responsible for five different human skin diseases, including epidermolysis bullosa simplex.
From her foundational work in skin biology, Fuchs went on to tackle the question of asymmetric cell division, by which stem cells divide into two daughter cells with different cell fates. Outside of developmental biology, this was the first demonstration in adult stem cells that the asymmetric mechanism was absolutely required for all stem cells to retain their pluripotent “stemness.”
Fuchs was on the faculty of the University of Chicago from 1980 to 1992 and has been a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator since 1993. She moved to Rockefeller in 2002 where she is now head of the Robin Chemers Neustein Laboratory of Mammalian Cell Biology and Development. Her lab has identified key regulators of the differentiation pathway through which epithelial stem cells become hair follicles, skin epidermis, and sweat glands. She was one of the first to characterize a cancer stem cell and trace its role in the origins of squamous cell carcinoma, one of the most common forms of skin cancer.
“It is a great pleasure to see Elaine bestowed with the highest prize in cell biology, the E.B. Wilson Medal,” says Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Rockefeller’s president. “Her decades-long record of path-breaking research on the mechanisms of cell differentiation and specialization has led to numerous inspiring discoveries, including many with clinical importance. Her work has had a significant impact on our understanding of skin disorders, cancer, and genetic diseases.”
Dr. Fuchs has received numerous previous awards, including the Pezcoller Foundation Award for Cancer Research, the Pasarow Award for Cancer Research, the March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology, the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, the Passano Prize, and the National Medal of Science. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and its Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society.
Previous Rockefeller recipients of the E.B. Wilson Medal include James Darnell in 1998, Christian de Duve in 1989, Günter Blobel in 1986, and George Palade and Keith Porter in 1981. Peter Walter, a Rockefeller alumnus, won it in 2009.