Sanford Burnham Prebys celebrates one of its legends

| Written by Miles Martin
Erkki Ruoslahti, M.D., Ph.D.

In 2022, Distinguished Professor Emeritus Erkki Ruoslahti, M.D., Ph.D., was awarded the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, the top American prize for biomedical research. Ruoslahti was also among the first scientists to join the Institute in the late 1970s, where he completed this award-winning research. To celebrate Ruoslahti’s career and accomplishments, Sanford Burnham Prebys hosted a special lecture with the esteemed scientist as well as a celebratory reception afterward.

“Erkki’s illustrious career is one that keeps us all inspired—me, especially, as I follow in his footsteps in leading this Institute,” says David A. Brenner, M.D., president and CEO of Sanford Burnham Prebys. “His Lasker Award win is so very much deserved. Not only does it recognize his outstanding influence in the field, but it also elevates the status of our Institute in the research community.”

Erkki Ruoslahti gives lecture to full a full auditorium
Ruoslahti gave his presentation to a packed house in Fishman Auditorium

Ruoslahti, who shares the award with Richard O. Hynes from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Timothy A. Springer from Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, began his presentation with the research that led to his discovery of the integrins—proteins found on the surface of cells that helps them attach to, and communicate with, nearby cells and the extracellular matrix. 

Ruoslahti’s road to the discovery of integrins began at the University of Helsinki, where, along with his colleagues, he discovered fibronectin, a protein that helps surround, support and give structure to cells and tissues in the body. However, the biggest breakthroughs were yet to come.

“My research on fibronectin and the subsequent discovery of the integrins really got going in my first years at Sanford Burnham Prebys,” says Ruoslahti, who first joined the Institute in 1979, when it was known as the La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation.

The Ruoslahti research team discovered that a simple sequence of three amino acids, called RGD, within fibronectin, attaches directly to cells. They were then able to synthesize RGD and use it as a tool to discover the cell-surface receptors today known as the integrins. This seemingly small discovery created an entirely new subdiscipline of molecular biology.

“The Lasker Award is given for a fundamental discovery that opens up a new area of biomedical science. It is America’s top biomedical research award and is often referred to as ‘America’s Nobel,’” says Brenner. “This is a profound honor, one that is only given to those who have made the greatest impact in our field.”

In 1989, Ruoslahti became president and CEO of the Institute, a position he held until returning to full-time research in 2002. He became a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Sanford Burnham Prebys in 2020. Ruoslahti has previously received the Japan Prize, the Gairdner Foundation International Award, the G.H.A. Clowes Memorial Award, and the Robert J. and Claire Pasarow Foundation Medical Research Award. He is also a Knight of the Order of the White Rose of Finland, a Commander of the Order of the Lion of Finland and is among the most cited scientists in the world.

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