Biochemist JoAnne Stubbe wins National Medal of Science

Nation's top science honor goes to MIT biochemist for her role in helping reveal the mechanism of enzymes involved in DNA replication and repair


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MIT biochemist JoAnne Stubbe will receive a National Medal of
Science — the nation's top science honor — for her work in
understanding the mechanisms of enzymes that play an essential role in
DNA replication and repair, President Barack Obama announced Thursday.

Obama will present the award to Stubbe and eight other scientists during an Oct. 7 White House ceremony.

"Professor
JoAnne Stubbe is a scientist's scientist: fiercely intelligent,
doggedly curious and unbending in her pursuit of truth," said MIT
President Susan Hockfield. "We are extraordinarily proud that she has
received the National Medal of Science for her pioneering work in
advancing our understanding of the chemistry at the root of life."

Stubbe,
who learned about the award in a late Tuesday night phone call from
John Holdren '65, SM '66, Obama's science and technology adviser, said
she is excited to make the trip to the White House and meet the
president.

"It's a little overwhelming, and a great honor," said
Stubbe, the Novartis Professor of Chemistry and a professor of biology.
"For the first time, everybody in my family is excited about what I
do," she joked.

According to the award citation, Stubbe was
honored "for her groundbreaking experiments establishing the mechanisms
of ribonucleotide reductases, polyester synthases, and natural product
DNA cleavers — compelling demonstrations of the power of chemical
investigations to solve problems in biology."

"These scientists,
engineers and inventors are national icons, embodying the very best of
American ingenuity and inspiring a new generation of thinkers and
innovators," Obama said in the announcement. "Their extraordinary
achievements strengthen our nation every day-not just intellectually
and technologically but also economically, by helping create new
industries and opportunities that others before them could never have
imagined."
 
Stubbe's
work over the past four decades has had profound impacts on fields
ranging from cancer drug development to synthesis of biodegradable
plastics.

One of her major accomplishments is unraveling the mechanism of
ribonucleotide reductases (RNRs), which play a key role in converting
nucleotides to deoxynucleotides — thereby allowing DNA to be copied and
repaired. Her studies in this area have led to the design of a drug,
gemcitabine, which is now used to treat pancreatic and other cancers.

MIT chemistry professor Stephen Lippard, who won the National Medal of
Science in 2004, describes Stubbe as "one of the top few mechanistic
biochemists of her generation." Stubbe spent a sabbatical in Lippard's
lab in 1983 before joining the MIT faculty, and he has long admired her
dedication, critical thinking, and relentless pursuit of the truth.
"There are few people with her drive for understanding and insistence
on accuracy in experimental work," he says. "It is a pleasure to be her
colleague."

Stubbe also discovered the structure and function of bleomycin, an
antibiotic used as a cancer drug. Her research team, in collaboration
with the laboratory of John Kozarich at ActivX, revealed how bleomycin
damages DNA, killing the cancer cell. They also identified the
structure of the DNA damage.

Stubbe is now working with MIT Biology Professor Anthony Sinskey to use
bacterial enzymes to produce biodegradable thermoplastics, which could
be a potential alternative to traditional oil-based plastics. They were
the first to isolate one of the enzymes, known as PHA synthases, and to
define how the plastic polymers form.

The National
Medal of Science was created in 1959 and is administered for the White
House by the National Science Foundation. Awarded annually, the medal
recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to
science and engineering. Nominees are selected by a committee of
presidential appointees based on their advanced knowledge in, and
contributions to, the biological, behavioral/social, and physical
sciences, as well as chemistry, engineering, computing, and mathematics.

Stubbe
is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy
of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. She has
won the National Academy of Sciences Award in Chemical Sciences (2008),
the Kaiser Award (2008), the Nakanishi Award (2009), the Alfred Bader
Award in Bioorganic and Bioinorganic Chemistry (1997), the Repligan
Award (2004), the Pfizer Award in Enzyme Chemistry (1986), the
ICI-Stuart Pharmaceutical Award for Excellence in Chemistry (1989), the
Cope Scholar Award (1993), the Richards Medal from the Northeastern
Section of the American Chemical Society (1996) and the Prelog Medal
(2009), among others.  

She earned a bachelor's degree in
chemistry in 1968 from the University of Pennsylvania and a PhD in
organic chemistry in 1971 from the University of California at Berkeley.

Stubbe
joined the MIT faculty in 1987 from the University of Wisconsin at
Madison, where she had been a faculty member since 1983. She has also
taught at the Yale University School of Medicine (1977-80) and at
Williams College (1972-77) and was an NIH postdoctoral fellow at
Brandeis (1975-77) and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of
California (1971-72).

Other current MIT faculty who have won the
National Medal of Science include Ann Graybiel (2001), Robert Langer
(2006), Stephen Lippard (2004), Alexander Rich (1995), Phillip Sharp
(2004), Isadore Singer (1983) and Robert Weinberg (1997). Emeritus
faculty who have won the award are David Baltimore (1999), Mildred
Dresselhaus (1990), Gobind Khorana (1987), Daniel Kleppner (2006), Paul
Samuelson (1996), Robert Solow (1999) and Kenneth Stevens (1999).

In
addition to Stubbe, this year's winners of the National Medal of
Science include MIT alumnus Rudolf Kalman of the Swiss Federal
Institute of Technology in Zurich. Kalman  earned his bachelor's and
master's degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from
MIT in 1953 and 1954, respectively.


Topics: National relations and service, Awards, honors and fellowships, DNA, Bioengineering and biotechnology, Chemistry and chemical engineering, Alumni/ae, Faculty

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