Anthony (Tony) James Pawson Molecular Biology

Internationally recognized for his work on cellular organization: how cells respond to growth signals, and how they communicate with each other

The Story

World-renowned signal-transduction researcher Dr. Tony Pawson learned about his interest in biochemistry with the help of his high school teacher Michael Baron, who shared his passion for the biochemical mechanism of cellular metabolism with his students. Pawson became fascinated by the notion that one could understand how complex organisms work at a cellular level and went on to study biochemistry at Cambridge. There, he was fortunate enough to study under the guidance of Tim Hunt, then working on protein synthesis. Hunt would eventually go on to win the Nobel Prize in 2001.

At Hunt’s suggestion, Pawson went to work on his Ph.D. at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London where he met other outstanding scientists working on establishing the identity of a gene that can cause a normal cell to become cancerous. That gene was called the v-src retroviral oncogene. Pawson decided to specialize in the genetics of oncogenes that create oncoproteins, big complicated molecules that transmit biochemical signals to affect virtually every aspect of cellular behaviour, thereby developing cancer.

Dr. Pawson did his post-doctoral research at the University of California at Berkely from 1976 to 1980 where he became interested in tyrosine kinase, which at the time was very poorly understood.

In 1981, Dr. Pawson accepted a position as an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia and moved to Vancouver. Once established in his own lab, he worked in close collaboration with other scientists. Together, they tried to identify the regions of the protein that are essential for its transforming activity. Later, they found that the tyrosine kinase domain was critical for its cancerous properties.

Eventually, in 1985 Dr. Pawson moved to Toronto to join the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital. Since then, Dr. Pawson and his lab associates have understood many aspects of signal transduction – how signals are conveyed from receptors at the cell membrane to their targets within the cell. However, the entire picture of this complex mechanism is yet to be discovered.

 

The Science

Communication is one of the activities responsible for our success in every sphere of our lives: work, school, sport, relationships. At a cellular level communication controls our very essence – our lives. In molecular biology the basic process of communicating involves getting signals from outside of a cell to inside, and it is called signal transduction.

Any external physical or chemical signal, such as temperature change, electricity and light waves, or signals from hormones or neurotransmitters, stimulates a specific response and causes biochemical reactions within the cell. In a healthy organism, cells function in an orderly manner. But what happens if the cell does not respond or receives an unusual signal? If this happens the organism may develop diseases.

For example, bad intracellular communication reduces immunity to various disorders. Cancer is the classic example of cells responding to an aberrant signal which causes them to grow in an uncontrolled fashion. The process can begin with a genetic mutation that affects the creation of signal transduction proteins that tell cells when to divide.

Tony Pawson has spent 25 years studying how cells grow and communicate with each other. He discovered which specific protein interactions control signal transduction. Further, he recognized the importance of tyrosine kinases, which are responsible for transmitting the commands to hormones that regulate cellular reproduction and metabolism. These discoveries allowed the development of new drugs that block the action of tyrosine kinases and thus halt the proliferation of some types of cancer cells.

Dr. Pawson’s discoveries contribute to every aspect of biomedical research including immunology and cancer research; for a decade, he has been one of the top 25 cited scientists in this field.

Sources:

Canadian Institute of Health Research

Dr. Pawson’s biography

An essay by Dr. Tony Pawson

 

Image: The Pawson Lab, Mount Sinai Hospital

 

 

The Person

Birthdate
October 18, 1952
Birthplace
Maidstone, England
Date of Death
August 7, 2013
Place of Death
Toronto, Ontario
Residence
Toronto, Ontario
Title
Distinguished Investigator, Director of Research
Office
Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute, Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital
Status
Deceased
Degrees
  • Ph.D. (Molecular Biology), London University, London, England, 1976
  • B.A. (Biochemistry), Cambridge University, Cambridge, England, 1973
Awards
  • Wolf Prize in Medicine, 2005
  • Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, 2004
  • Prix Galien Canada, 2002
  • Premier’s Platinum Medal for Research Excellence, 2002
  • Killam Prize for the Health Sciences, 2000, 2004
  • J. Allyn Taylor International Prize in Medicine, 2000
  • Officer, Order of Canada, 2000
  • Henry Friesen Award, Canadian Society for Clinical Investigation, 1998
  • AACR-Pezcoller International Award for Cancer Research, American Association for Cancer Research/Pezcoller Foundation, 1998
  • Dr. H.P. Heineken Prize for Biochemistry and Biophysics, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1998
  • Flavelle Medal, Royal Society of Canada, 1998
  • Distinguished Scientist Award, Medical Research Council, 1998
  • Boehringer Mannheim Prize, Canadian Society of Biochemistry and Molecular and Cellular Biology, 1998
  • Robert L. Noble Prize, National Cancer Institute of Canada, 1995
  • Gairdner Foundation International Award, 1994
  • Fellow, Royal Society of London, 1994
  • Fellow, Royal Society of Canada, 1994
Mentor
Michael Baron, a high school teacher who inspired him to study biochemistry Tim Hunt, Nobel Prize Laureate, who coordinated his project at Cambridge and suggested continuing education at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London
Last Updated
June 17, 2015
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