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Back in February, Dr. Nahum Sonenberg, a James McGill Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and the McGill Cancer Centre, received a phone call letting him in on some sensitive information that was to be kept under wraps until April. "Usually I am very good at keeping secrets," he said. "They told me I could tell my wife, so that's what I did."
What Sonenberg told his wife was that he would be among this year's winners of the Gairdner International Award, which recognizes the world's very best medical scientists. In fact, the Gairdner is often referred to as the "mini-Nobel", given that of the 288 individuals who have received the award since its inception in 1957, 70 have subsequently gone on to win a Nobel Prize.
"McGill is very proud to be the home of such a scholar," Denis Thérien, Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations) said. "Dr. Sonenberg is truly among his peers in this group and we are delighted to celebrate this success with him."
Sonenberg, one of three Canadians out of the six recipients, was recognized for his groundbreaking work toward the control of protein synthesis. In discovering important mechanisms that control the development of proteins in human cells, Sonenberg and his team have opened the door to the possibility of developing cures for diseases including cancer, obesity, memory impairment and virus infections.
With respect to virus infections, for instance, Sonenberg explained that his team was able to "delete the protein that is involved in the control of protein synthesis, and these mice are now resistant to virus infection. For example, if we can find a drug that targets this protein, we can make people resistant to virus infection."
Sonenberg hopes his award will draw attention to the benefits of basic research such as that which goes on in his lab. "There is not enough money for this kind of research," he said succinctly, noting the federal government is increasingly interested in funding translational research (which provides more immediate commercial benefits) at the expense of basic research. "That's short-sighted. There are so many proteins in the cell – let's say there are 50,000 proteins – and we still don't know what most of them are doing."
With his award, Sonenberg becomes the ninth McGill professor to win a Gairdner. He will be presented with his award and a $30,000 cash prize at a gala dinner in October.