For their pioneering efforts to expose the inner workings of enzymes, JoAnne Stubbe, Novartis Professor of Chemistry at MIT, and Christopher T. Walsh, Hamilton Kuhn Professor of Biological Chemistry & Molecular Pharmacology at Harvard Medical School, will share this year's Welch Award in Chemistry. The $300,000 award is given annually by the Houston-based Welch Foundation to foster and encourage basic chemical research that benefits humankind.
Stubbe and Walsh have spent their respective careers studying the ingenious biological chemistry carried out by enzymes. "The light they have been able to shed on how nature accomplishes very complicated tasks is being translated into applications with therapeutic or other life-enhancing value," notes James L. Kinsey of Rice University, who chairs the Welch Foundation's scientific advisory board.
Stubbe is the first woman to receive the Welch Award since its inception in 1972. She has spent much of her career showing how ribonucleotide reductase enzymes use radical intermediates to produce the deoxyribonucleotides required to make and repair DNA. Those insights led directly to the design of the anticancer drug gemcitabine. Her lab has also investigated the mechanism of DNA-cleaving natural products and enzymes that make polyesters.
Stubbe earned a B.S. from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. She did stints on the faculty of Williams College, Yale University, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, before Walsh recruited her to MIT in 1987.
Walsh is perhaps best known for uncovering the mechanism by which resistance develops to the antibiotic vancomycin, which at one time served as the antibiotic of last resort for life-threatening infections. More recently, he's turned his attention to how natural products are biosynthesized, hoping to identify new antibiotics and anticancer agents.
Walsh earned a B.A. from Harvard University and a Ph.D. at Rockefeller University. He spent many years on the chemistry faculty at MIT before moving to Harvard Medical School in 1987.
Stubbe and Walsh, who have shared research interests since they were postdocs in enzymologist Robert H. Abeles' lab at Brandeis University, both say they're thrilled to share the award that their former mentor shared with Harvard University's Jeremy R. Knowles back in 1995. "We're in remarkable company," Walsh says.