Nobel laureate’s research into neurodegenerative diseases gets boost from Japanese firm.
Stanley Prusiner, M.D., is used to overcoming challenges in his career.
In 1982, as a UC San Francisco junior faculty member in the Department of Neurology, Prusiner published an article describing his discovery of an unprecedented class of pathogens that he named “prions.” These infectious proteins are now understood to be involved in numerous neurodegenerative diseases in humans and animals, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, frontotemporal dementia and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD).
The article sparked a firestorm at the time.
Prusiner’s contention that a protein alone could be infectious flew in the face of the commonly held scientific belief that infections could only be transmitted by viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites – all of which have genomes composed of either DNA or RNA. Proteins, however, are composed of amino acids.
Despite what he described as a “torrent of criticism” from the scientific community, the media and even funders of his research, Prusiner remained undeterred. He took comfort in the unwavering support of close colleagues, and mounting scientific evidence – much of it stemming his UCSF lab – that backed his claims.
The groundbreaking work led to Prusiner’s 1997 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
“People often ask me why I persisted in doing research on a subject that was so controversial,” Prusiner said in his Nobel acceptance speech. “I frequently respond by telling them that only a few scientists are granted the great fortune to pursue topics that are so new and different that only a small number of people can grasp [their] meaning initially.”
In the decades since his discovery, Prusiner – now director of the Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases (IND) at UCSF – has been committed to getting answers about prion diseases, and ultimately treatments and cures.
Even with a Nobel Prize under his belt, the road continues to pose challenges.
Federal funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been crucial to his research, but the recent recession – and resulting sequestration – highlighted the need to strengthen relationships with private industry. In 2013, the NIH awarded a total of $22.5 billion in funding to U.S. institutions, the lowest amount since 2003.
But this month, Prusiner’s work got a huge boost from an exciting new collaboration between the IND and the Japan-based global pharmaceutical company Daiichi Sankyo Co. Ltd. It will focus on developing therapeutics and molecular diagnostics for multiple neurodegenerative diseases.
“Alzheimer’s alone kills as many people every year as cancer does, but it only receives one-tenth of the funding that we dedicate to cancer research. This collaboration won’t fill that funding gap, but it will offer the tremendous value of Daiichi Sankyo’s scientific expertise to make progress on these diseases,” he said.