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UCSF Biochemist Wins Prestigious Prize

By Jason Bardi | December 22, 2011

UCSF Biochemist Wins Prestigious Prize

Peter Walter, PhD (Credit: Elena Zhukova)

Peter Walter, PhD, a professor in the Biochemistry and Biophysics Department within the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco has been awarded the 2012 Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize for his “outstanding research achievements in the field of cell biology.”

The €100,000 (About $131,000) German award specifically recognizes Walter’s work over the last two decades on how cells cope with stress—insight that has profound implications for understanding and treating numerous human diseases, including cancer, diabetes, cystic fibrosis and neurodegenerative disorders.

The prize will be awarded in a ceremony in St. Paul’s Church in Frankfurt on March 14, the birthday of immunologist Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915), a German scientist who was a towering figure in medicine at the beginning of the 20th century.

“This prize is one of the top international awards given every year for medical research, and it is a wonderful recognition of Dr. Walter’s work,” said Sam Hawgood, Dean of the UCSF School of Medicine. “His research captures the best this field has to offer—fundamental science revealing life’s mysteries at its smallest scale and with huge implications for human health worldwide.”

Past recipients have included Walter’s UCSF colleagues Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, who won the prize in 2009, and Stanley Prusiner, MD, who won the award in 1995. Both Blackburn and Prusiner also won the Nobel Prize for their work.

Over the last 18 years, Walter and his colleagues have investigated an intracellular process known as the unfolded protein response, which multi-celled organisms use to deal with stress and avoid poisoning their own tissues.

The unfolded protein response regulates the processing of proteins, which all cells produce in great abundance. Some secretory cells in the body make and release the equivalent of their own weight in proteins every single day.

Protein production is tightly controlled, however, to ensure that the body does not poison itself by releasing toxic proteins that are not processed correctly. The unfolded protein response is one of the main ways cells maintain this control.

Basically, explained Walter, “The unfolded protein response makes life and death decisions for the cell.”

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