SEATTLE – Jan. 8, 2013 – Sue Biggins, Ph.D., a geneticist and biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has received the National Academy of Sciences Award in Molecular Biology. Sponsored by Pfizer Inc., the award consists of a $25,000 prize in recognition of a recent notable discovery by a young scientist.
She was among 18 honored by NAS this year for outstanding achievements in a wide range of fields spanning the physical, biological and social sciences.
Biggins, a member of the Fred Hutch Basic Sciences Division, was recognized for her work in understanding the mechanics of cell division. She recently made an important contribution to the field by figuring out how to isolate the specialized cellular machines known as kinetochores that allow cells to separate and accurately distribute their chromosomes.
For decades, researchers have tried and failed to isolate or assemble whole, functioning kinetochores to better understand how they help chromosomes separate and end up in the right daughter cells. If this goes awry, entire chromosomes are gained or lost, a hallmark of most cancers, birth defects and miscarriages.
Biggins’ team, stepping away from genetic methods and borrowing from biochemists’ playbook, for the first time succeed in separating the kinetochores from dividing yeast cells and studying them in test tubes.
During cell division, kinetochores act like handles on chromosomes and are under tremendous pressure as fibers pull on these handles to move the chromosomes within the dividing cell. If chromosomes fall off in the midst of this process, they don’t end up in the daughter cell. Biggins and colleagues, in collaboration with the laboratory of Chip Asbury, Ph.D., in the Physiology and Biophysics Department at the University of Washington, found the harder the kinetochores are pulled, the harder they attach, like a finger-trap toy. This counterintuitive characteristic explains why the process works correctly so often.
What’s true in yeast is also true in human cells. 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, which potentially could stop a disease such as cancer.
Editor’s note: A photo of Biggins is available upon request.
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At Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, home to three Nobel laureates, interdisciplinary teams of world-renowned scientists seek new and innovative ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer, HIV/AIDS and other life-threatening diseases. The Hutchinson Center’s pioneering work in bone marrow transplantation led to the development of immunotherapy, which harnesses the power of the immune system to treat cancer with minimal side effects. An independent, nonprofit research institute based in Seattle, the Hutchinson Center houses the nation’s first and largest cancer prevention research program, as well as the clinical coordinating center of the Women’s Health Initiative and the international headquarters of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network. Private contributions are essential for enabling Hutchinson Center scientists to explore novel research opportunities that lead to important medical breakthroughs. For more information visit www.fhcrc.org or follow the Hutchinson Center on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.