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Leading diabetes and cancer researcher brings “EMBO Gold” to Scotland


Heidelberg, 6 October 2005 - Professsor Dario Alessi of the MRC (Medical Research Council) Protein Phosphorylation Unit at the University of Dundee, Scotland is the 2005 winner of the EMBO Gold Medal. Alessi receives the award in recognition of his landmark work in cell signalling. The young scientist’s pioneering research on enzymes called “kinases” and their role in inherited disease has provided exciting new insights into conditions such as diabetes, cancer and hypertension.

The EMBO Gold Medal is presented annually to a young European researcher for outstanding contributions to life sciences research. Recipients are also honoured as role models for other young scientists in Europe. Dario Alessi fulfils these criteria on every level. Just 14 years after completing his PhD, he is a leading light in the world of cell signalling. His discovery and characterisation of the PDK1 and LKB1 kinases has had a major impact on understanding of signal transduction. These breakthroughs and Alessi’s continued research in this area also hold great promise for the clinical treatment of inherited diseases.

EMBO Executive Director, Frank Gannon, commented:
“Dario is an exemplary role model for young researchers, having achieved so much in his still young research career. His work has had a tremendous international impact and this is all the more remarkable when you consider his publication approach, which steers away from high impact journals. To do this and still achieve such an impact on biomedical research is the mark of a truly exceptional scientist.”

The true extent of this impact was demonstrated recently in data published by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI). The ISI Essential Science Indicators placed Alessi as the world’s 13th most cited scientist in the fields of biology and biochemistry from January 1995 to August 2005 – a remarkable achievement for such a young researcher.

On hearing the news of his award, Dario Alessi said:
“It’s an enormous honour to be selected by EMBO for this award and to be the first researcher in Scotland to receive this accolade. The European aspect of the award is very special to me. With Scottish and Italian parents, a Spanish wife and a childhood spent in France and Belgium, I have a strong European sense of identity. To gain the recognition of such an esteemed group of European scientists is also a great privilege.”

The EMBO Gold Medal and a bursary of 10,000 Euro will be presented to Dario Alessi on October 16, 2005 at the EMBO Frontiers of Molecular Biology meeting in Warsaw, Poland.

Dario Alessi was born in France and brought up in Belgium by Scots-Italian parents. He carried out his PhD on the organic synthesis of spin-labelled ATP analogues at the University of Birmingham and the National Institute for Medical Research in London. He has been working at the UK Medical Research Council’s (MRC) Protein Phosphorylation Unit in Dundee since 1991, where he became principal investigator in 1997.

Alessi has received many prestigious international awards and published over 100 peer-reviewed research papers. Recent data from the Institute for Scientific Information ranks him as the world’s 13th most cited scientist in the fields of biology and biochemistry from January 1995 to August 2005*. In 2005, Alessi was elected a member of EMBO.

Research interests
Alessi’s first major breakthrough came in 1997, when he discovered an enzyme called 3-phosphoinositide-dependent protein kinase-1 (PDK1) and its ability to switch on protein kinase B (PKB) through phosphorylation. This finding provided the missing link to one of the major symptoms of Type 2 diabetes – the storage of glucose in muscle tissues stimulated by insulin. Subsequent research revealed that PDK1 also regulates other insulin-activated enzymes, uncovering it as a master regulator of insulin-controlled responses and implicating it in the development of diabetes drugs. Over the past year, Alessi’s laboratory has also gone on to validate PDK1 as a key anti-cancer agent.

Another major highlight of Alessi’s career is his work on the LKB1 enzyme. In 2003, Alessi and his team identified a key link between LKB1 and AMPK, an enzyme important in regulating the level of glucose in the blood. The group discovered that LKB1 switches on AMPK and that this activation may impact the LKB1’s tumour-preventing properties. This discovery opens the way for research into drugs that target this signalling pathway in cancer sufferers to prevent tumours and in diabetics to enable better control of blood sugar levels. Alessi and his group have also shown that LKB1 is responsible for activating twelve other related enzymes, some of which have been associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Future studies at Alessi’s laboratory will focus on further investigation of the cellular functions of LKB1-activated kinases. The group also plans to dissect the roles of other poorly characterised kinases, whose mutation results in inherited diseases. These include mutated genes in patients with Gordon’s hypertension syndrome and early onset Parkinson’s disease. These studies could lead to the discovery of new regulatory pathways and better understanding of human disease.