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Wabash Alumnus Wins Lasker Award

Lasker Award Winner Robert Roeder
A Rockefeller University biochemist and Wabash College alumnus whose research has led to major advances in understanding how human genes are switched "on" and "off," is this year's recipient of the highly prestigious Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research. The Lasker Award is often referred to as the "American Nobel Prize."

The Lasker Award honors Robert G. Roeder, Ph.D., a 1964 graduate of Wabash College, for advancing scientific knowledge about how a human body cell "reads" genes. This essential activity, called transcription, occurs in every one of the billions of cells in the human body at all times. Understanding transcription is the key to understanding how cells in the body become specialized as well as abnormal.

The human body consists of over 200 distinct types of cells, all containing an identical set of genetic instructions. But if a skin cell has the same genes as a muscle cell, how does each cell type function in its specialized role? The difference between the various types of cells is largely determined by which of the cell's specific genes are switched "on" by the cell's own transcription machinery.

Rockefeller University's new President Paul Nurse, Ph.D., said, "Ultimately, the application of Roeder's findings may lead to new drugs that selectively switch genes on or off for the treatment of diseases like cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, AIDS and any other medical condition in which normal gene activity is disrupted."

Nurse, who became president on Sept. 1 and is a past recipient of the Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research as well as the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, added, "While there have been many contributors in this area, none have provided more seminal discoveries than Roeder."

Roeder adds, “My interest in transcription was stimulated, as a Wabash College undergraduate in 1963, by a biochemistry course that covered recent work in bacterial genetic regulatory mechanisms.”

Roeder continued his studies in graduate work at the University of Illinois and later at the University of Washington, where he worked with scientist Bill Rutter. He presently heads the Laboratory of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at The Rockefeller University New York.

While Roeder understands that many challenges still lie ahead, he says, “There is hope that while learning how the cell uses its transcription machinery for normal gene regulation, we might also deduce ways to selectively regulate and control aberrant gene expression.”

Roeder is the second Wabash College alumnus in the last four years to receive the prestigious Lasker Award. The late David Cushman, Wabash Class of 1961, won the Lasker Award four years ago for his ground-breaking work in the development of high blood pressure medicines. The former Bristol-Myers-Squibb researcher led the team that developed the drug Captopril, the most widely prescribed high blood pressure medicine.

Wabash College acknowledges the merging of the fields of biology and chemistry, and recently dedicated a $30 million science building that houses both departments. The 80,000 square-foot building features research labs for biology and chemistry are side-by-side and allow students to work more closely with their faculty.