14 October 2020 – Every year, EMBO awards the Gold Medal to scientists under the age of 40 in recognition of outstanding achievements in the life sciences. The award consists of a gold medal and a cash prize of € 10,000.
Sarah-Maria Fendt, a biochemist at the VIB Center for Cancer Biology and KU Leuven, Belgium, was awarded the Gold Medal for her contributions to the molecular understanding of metabolic changes that occur during cancer proliferation and metastasis formation, in particular for her discoveries on how the cellular environment influences the metabolism of tumours.
Fendt’s recent work has uncovered a new lipid metabolism pathway in cancer cells that can make the cells resistant to anticancer drugs. She has also discovered how the metabolism of metastasizing cancer cells regulates extracellular matrix remodelling of the metastatic niche. Because this metabolic regulation can be targeted to reduce metastasis formation, the finding could help to develop more effective cancer therapies. As a contributor to an EU-funded programme for female researchers, Fendt also acts as a mentor for women in science, supporting their career development.
“Sarah’s research line is seminal, novel and paradigm-shifting in our understanding of cancer progression,” says EMBO Member Peter Carmeliet at KU Leuven. In addition to opening new avenues for cancer metabolism research, Fendt’s work “provides truly novel concepts that have the potential to increase long-term patient survival,” says EMBO Member Karen Vousden at the Francis Crick Institute in London, United Kingdom.
Markus Ralser, a researcher in systems metabolism at the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Germany, and the Francis Crick Institute, London, is recognized for conceptual and technological advances in the understanding of the origins, evolution, and functionality of metabolism.
Ralser has uncovered how the metabolic network of eukaryotic cells can quickly self-adapt to protect cells from toxic substances or changes in the environment. His work has also shown that a very central metabolic pathway, known as glycolysis, can function in the absence of enzymes. The finding was the first experimental evidence for a ‘metabolism first’ hypothesis about the origin of life, according to which some of the primordial reactions did not arise from Darwinian selection but were catalysed by simple inorganic molecules. In recent years, Ralser’s group has developed new technologies that facilitate the quantification of enzymes and other proteins in thousands of samples. Using machine-learning algorithms, the team has also succeeded in capturing interactions between genes and metabolic pathways at the level of the entire cellular system.
“Markus Ralser is an impressive young molecular biologist who is performing cutting-edge research in metabolic systems biology, excelling in all domains of the subject: ‘omic’ analyses, mathematical modelling, and molecular genetics,” says EMBO Member Stephen Oliver at the University of Cambridge, UK. Ralser, he adds, “combines a willingness to develop and perfect new technologies with the courage to probe beneath what ‘everybody knows.’”
Sarah-Maria Fendt and Markus Ralser will be presenting their award lectures in occasion of Cell Bio 2020 Virtual, 9 December, held jointly by the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) and EMBO.
More information about both recipients and their research is available in two interviews at www.embo.org/news/articles/2020/the-award-highlights-that-our-research-on-metabolism-and-metastasis-formation-is-important.html and www.embo.org/news/articles/2020/it-feels-great-that-metabolism-is-back-to-focus.html
Born and raised in Bavaria, Germany, Sarah-Maria Fendt studied Science Biochemistry at TU Munich and then moved to ETH Zurich, Switzerland, to pursue a PhD in Molecular Systems Biology. After postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard Medical School in Boston and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, USA, Fendt moved back to Europe. Since 2013, she is Professor of Oncology at KU Leuven and Principal Investigator at the VIB Center for Cancer Biology. There, she leads the Laboratory of Cellular Metabolism and Metabolic Regulation, which studies the general regulatory principles of metabolism as well as cancer metabolism during tumour proliferation and metastasis formation.
Born in South Tyrol, Italy, Markus Ralser studied Genetics and Molecular Biology in Salzburg, Austria. Ralser then completed a PhD in neurodegenerative disorders at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin, Germany, where he also carried out postdoctoral work. After a stint as a visiting scientist at VU Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Ralser returned to the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics as a Junior group leader to study fundamental principles in cellular metabolism. He then established his independent laboratory at the University of Cambridge, UK, and, later, at the Francis Crick Institute in London. Since 2018, Ralser has a dual appointment between the Francis Crick Institute and the Charité – Universitätsmedizin in Berlin, where he leads the Biochemistry Department.