Michael N. Hall, Professor of Biochemistry at the Biozentrum of the University of Basel, is one of the winners of the 2014 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. He received the prize for his discovery of the protein kinase target of rapamycin (TOR) and its role in cell growth control. In the same week in December, Hall’s laboratory was announced as a co-recipient of an 11.2 million Euros Synergy Grant from the European Research Council (ERC). In an interview with EMBOencounters, Hall recalls the award ceremony in California and the highlights of 2013.
What were the factors that made 2013 such a success?
The support from the ERC came after several years of applying to different agencies. We submitted the project a number of times before finally succeeding. We learned from our failures. For example, initially we underestimated the importance of pathology. By the time the successful application rolled around, we had proof of concept. It also took time to recruit patients with hepatocellular carcinoma for the study. With regard to the prize, I suppose the story had matured to a point where the significance of the original discovery was clear.
What makes the TOR protein so special? It has kept your research going for more than two decades.
TOR is a highly conserved protein that controls the fundamentally important processes of growth and aging. It is found in all eukaryotes – all the way from yeast to humans, including flies, plants and worms. TOR is a validated drug target, implicated in several diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. As a result, several communities are interested in TOR – the pharmaceutical industry, clinical researchers and basic scientists. The positive side is that we have an immediate audience for whatever we do. The downside is that it is extremely competitive.
You mentioned that the protein offers a promising target for a wide range of diseases. Which one would you like to focus on in the future?
For us it is clearly cancer. We do some research that relates to obesity and diabetes, but the main focus is going to be liver cancer. This is the focus of the 11 million Euro Synergy grant that Niko Beerenwinkel, Gerhard Christofori, Markus Heim and I just received.
How will the Synergy Grant change your research and your set-up?
It will help me expand my basic research into translational research areas and increase my team by a few people. Our laboratory received the grant together with colleagues in the Department of Biomedicine of the University of Basel and the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering at the ETH Zurich to explore how tumours become resistant to targeted therapies. It is a translational project that takes us into the operating room. In fact, I have visited the operating room to see how the tumour samples are collected. This helped me to understand that there are people behind our research – something I knew of course but did not fully appreciate. It makes a huge difference for someone who started out as a yeast geneticist.
The project takes my laboratory in a direction it has been going for a few years. We want to ramp it up now. In the eighties and nineties, my laboratory focused on yeast genetics but we have now moved on to mammalian cells. More recently we started working on mice to better understand the process of cell growth in the context of whole body growth. To find out what happens when this process is not functioning properly, we decided to start working on human tumours. It is a logical conclusion to how my laboratory has been evolving since the eighties.
Were you surprised to hear that your past discovery earned you the Breakthrough Prize?
I was very surprised. In fact, it took me a while to believe it.
A declared goal of the prize is “to celebrate scientists and generate excitement about the pursuit of science as a career”. Do you believe this will happen?
The prize certainly celebrates scientists as individuals. At least I and the other laureates felt very celebrated. I am sceptical that the prize itself is going to encourage a young person to go into science. You do not go into science to win prizes. But, hopefully the prize will generate excitement about science, which will then lead young people to pursue a scientific career. We need more people and funding in science. There are many problems that still need to be solved, for example, cancer and climate change. Who will solve these problems if not scientists? Who will make the next technological breakthrough that will lead to something as important and useful as the internet?
What was the award ceremony like?
The gala was a unique experience. It was a glitzy Oscar-type ceremony at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California that brought together very different types of people. A genuine mix of Hollywood celebrities, Silicon Valley bigshots and scientists. Movie stars and scientists do not often have the chance to mix. Yet everybody seemed to enjoy each other’s company and have a good time.
How are you going to use the money?
I am not exactly sure yet, but I probably will not use it for my research. However, I would like to give back to science, most likely by helping young scientists.
You were born in Puerto Rico, grew up in South America and have lived in Switzerland for almost thirty years. Are you planning to move continents again?
I feel very lucky that I ended up in Basel, and in particular at the Biozentrum. It is a scientific paradise. And I am still happy here and do not plan to move. In addition to my American citizenship I am a Swiss citizen now. I could however go back to the United States once I retire as my mandatory retirement approaches here. I like being a scientist and I do not see myself stopping, at least not yet.