September 12, 1996

McGill researchers earn top MRC prizes

by Daniel McCabe

A pair of McGill professors from the Faculty of Medicine earned the Medical Research Council of Canada's most prestigious prize this summer. Dr. Yogesh Patel from the Department of Medicine and Dr. Nahum Sonenberg from the Department of Biochemistry were two of five researchers nationwide to be named MRC Distinguished Scientists.

The five-year award was created to support the salaries of top-flight medical scientists in the country with at least 15 years of experience in research. Each prize is worth $50,000 a year. The MRC selects the winners on the merits of their research activities as judged against the most important scientific studies being conducted throughout the world in their respective disciplines.

"In providing these awards, MRC is proud to recognize the outstanding career achievements of Drs. Patel and Sonenberg, both of whom are true leaders in their fields," says MRC president Dr. Henry Friesen.

"This is a real morale booster," says Dean of Medicine Abe Fuks. Budget woes and political uncertainty have taken their toll, Fuks admits, but he says that the MRC prizes are evidence of the remarkable research that continues to take place at McGill nonetheless. "There are too many people out there saying, 'The sky is falling' right now. These are challenging times, sure, but these awards acknowledge that (McGill) has outstanding talent here--people who are doing internationally recognized work." Fuks adds that since the awards will help his faculty cover the salaries of Patel and Sonenberg for the next five years, "this gives us a little flexibility in coping with our budgetary restraints."

Patel is regarded as one of the world's foremost authorities on an important brain neuropeptide called somatostatin. Somatostatin plays an role in regulating the secretion of growth hormones, thyroid stimulating hormones and insulin. His research team was the first to identify somatostatin receptors housed in the brain and they also proved that the gut was the principal source of somatostatin production. Patel and his team recently characterized four of the five human somatostatin receptor genes.

Currently, Patel is investigating new ways of treating the hormone producing tumors that occur in the pituitary and pancreas. He is also involved in the further study of somatostatin receptor genes in an effort to gain a more detailed understanding of how they function, which he thinks might help in the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses such as cancer and Alzheimer's Disease.

Sonenberg is recognized internationally for his contributions in the area of regulation of protein synthesis. His research has been instrumental in describing the workings of messenger ribonucleic acid, which plays a central role in translating genetic information into proteins.

Sonenberg's studies have also highlighted the fact that protein synthesis regulators can act as cancer causing genes and potential targets in the treatment of AIDS. His discoveries about the behaviour of a protein produced by HIV could help researchers develop new types of anti-HIV drugs. Sonenberg's scientific team has also demonstrated how insulin stimulates protein synthesis. He is currently the senior editor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, the leading journal in molecular biology.

The MRC recently awarded another top prize to a McGill scientist. Neurology and neurosurgery professor Dr. Jean-Pierre Julien, was named an MRC Senior Scientist. This prize is also earmarked for researchers of international caliber and awards $50,000 a year over a five-year period to scientists with at least nine years of experience. Julien is credited with determining that the over-expression of neuro-filament genes can lead to a progressive neurodegenerative process ending in cell death. This finding has drawn widescale attention from researchers studying Lou Gehrig's Disease.