UCLA’s Michael Grunstein wins Lasker award for study of histones

Tom Tugend

LOS ANGELES (JTA) – Veteran UCLA professor Michael Grunstein will accept the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Science Award, one of the most prestigious American research prizes.

Grunstein, 72, a Romanian-born son of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to the United States in 1950, will receive the prize on Friday during an award ceremony at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan. Historically, recipients of the Lasker awards become prime contenders for the Nobel Prizes in their fields.

Now a UCLA professor emeritus in biological chemistry, Grunstein will share the $250,000 Lasker Award with biochemist C. David Allis of the Rockefeller University in New York.

Working on opposite sides of the country, the two scientists “pioneered work that elevated the importance of histones, proteins in the chromosomes that had previously been overlooked,” according to the New York Times.

DNA molecules are so long that, if stretched from end to end, one strand would reach six feet. Histones are the proteins that coil and cram these strands into microscopic cells and were seen for a long time as little more than DNA spools, part of the basic machinery of the cell.

In fact, histones play a crucial role in turning genes off and on, which allows each cell to carry out its assigned work, Grunstein and Allis discovered. Their research has led to a series of new medical treatments, especially for cancer.

Grunstein enrolled at Canada’s McGill University, where he received his bachelor’s degree, and focused on the study of genetics. The choice disappointed his father and mother who, like the proverbial Jewish parents, wanted their offspring to become a doctor.  He received his PhD from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland and did his post-doctoral training at Stanford University.

Grunstein began studying histones at UCLA in the mid-1970s in sea urchins, when genomic science was still in its infancy. His first paper on the specialized proteins was published in 1980.

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