Botstein wins 500K prize
By Marissa Lee
Associate Editor for News
Molecular biology professor David Botstein, director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, was named one of three recipients of the annual $500,000 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research on Wednesday. The award is the largest prize in medicine in the United States and is considered second only to the Nobel Prize.
Botstein, along with Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and Eric Lander ’78, director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, received the prize for their foundational work in mapping the human genome, which ultimately paved the way for the Human Genome Project.
In a teleconference on Wednesday afternoon, James Barba, president and CEO of Albany Medical Center, explained how Botstein “laid the basic groundwork for the genome project by being one of the first to suggest the concept of building a complete map of a human being.”
Botstein said he came up with this idea during a discussion with researchers at the University of Utah in 1978. In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, he explained how there are markers all along the human DNA sequence. Because disease genes are inherited, it would be possible to find the specific location of a disease gene between two markers by tracking a family through several generations. If this were done throughout the entire DNA sequence, the human genome could be mapped.
In 1980, Botstein and three colleagues published a landmark paper that explained how to map genetic diseases from one gene.
Botstein later began working with Lander when he realized that his project to map the genome required “a higher level of mathematical sophistication.”
When the two first began working together, they “didn’t sleep for about a week,” Botstein explained. But by week’s end, they had a “pretty good idea” of how — in principle — they could devise a plan to map the human genome.
Collins joined the project after he developed a mapping technology called positional cloning, which allows scientists to find the exact location of a gene between two markers. In 1989, he employed the technique to discover the gene that causes cystic fibrosis.
The Human Genome Project, which was launched in 1990 and completed in 2003, was built on theoretical research conducted by Botstein and Lander to map the entire human genome sequence.
“There is almost universal agreement ... that the Human Genome Project can, and will, lead to advances in medicine that were unimaginable before these scientists started their work,” Barba said.
Botstein said that this project was the most important one he has ever worked on.
“It’s changed the way we think about medicine,” he said, noting the “collaboration of literally thousands of scientists” to produce the results of the Human Genome Project.
“This was a very big deal. We were just in a position to get things started, but the heavy lifting wasn’t done by us,” he added.
Botstein noted in the teleconference that recognition, like the Albany Medical Center Prize, is an incentive for scientists to continue their work despite challenges.
“You go for a long period of time when everybody tells you that you’re wasting your time, it’s not worth the money, you can’t have the grant, you can’t publish the paper,” he explained. “There is a lot of negative energy.”
The Albany Medical Center Prize was established in 2000 and recognizes scientists whose research contributes to improving health care.