Dr. Sue Biggins elected to National Academy of Sciences

Biologist honored for her research on how cells segregate chromosomes during division
Dr. Sue Biggins
Dr. Sue Biggins is a researcher in the Fred Hutch Basic Sciences Division. Fred Hutch file

Dr. Sue Biggins, a genetics and biology researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, on Tuesday was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

One of the country’s highest scientific honors (akin to a Baseball Hall of Fame for science), the NAS is a private, nonprofit society of distinguished scholars. Established by an act of Congress and signed into law in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, the organization is charged with providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology.

Biggins, who received an NAS award in molecular biology in 2013, has been a member of Fred Hutch’s Basic Sciences Division for 15 years.

Biggins studies how cells divide and discovered how specialized “cellular machines” known as kinetochores allow cells to separate and distribute their chromosomes accurately. This shuffling of chromosomes from mother to daughter cells must happen accurately with every cell division — mistakes in chromosome segregation are a hallmark of cancer cells and genetic defects that can lead to miscarriage.

Biggins and her team succeeded in isolating the kinetochores from dividing yeast cells – whose kinetochores function like those of human cells – studying them in test tubes for the first time. That accomplishment was transformative for Biggins and the field, allowing her and her colleagues to uncover molecular and physical characteristics of the kinetochore that had never before been revealed.

Because kinetochores play such an important role in chromosome segregation, knowing how they work turns them into very large therapeutic targets. If research leads to drugs that disrupt kinetochores from doing their job in unhealthy cells, they would be unable to divide and propagate at all, stopping a disease such as cancer.

Dr. Jonathan Cooper, director of the Basic Sciences Division, said Biggins’ induction was “great news” and said Biggins is a “wonderful scientist, mentor and colleague.”  

“Sue’s work gets to the crux of what basic research should be: Using simplified systems to understand the workings of all cells,” he said. “By studying how chromosomes move during cell division in bakers’ yeast, she’s uncovering the mysteries of how human cells divide normally and how chromosome abnormalities occur in cancer cells and birth defects.”

“I’m so happy she’s part of our community at the Hutch,” he said.

Biggins also praised the Hutch and the collaborative atmosphere that has made her scientific advances possible.

“This is a great honor and it really is due to the dedication of my lab members and collaborators throughout the years,” she said. “It’s also a testament to the environment at the Hutch that promotes basic science and my colleagues in the division who have supported our work over the years.”

Biggins is among 84 new members and 21 foreign associates elected to membership this year.

Click here for a list of other NAS members at Fred Hutch.

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