25 June 2014

Forward-thinking protein scientist receives prestigious award


Professor Jiri Lukas, director of the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research, has been awarded the prestigious international Leopold Griffuel Prize for his work on proteins role in cancer cells.

Professor Jiri Lukas has just received the prestigious international Leopold Griffuel Prize for his work on proteins role in cancer cells, which have led to better understanding of how cancer develops. His work has uncovered several weak points in intricate protein networks on which cancer cells are particularly reliant and whose targeting can help design more efficient way for treatment. The cash award of €150,000 from the French Association for Cancer Research (Association pour la Recherche sur le Cancer, ARC) is designed to reward the accomplishments of and encourage further research among the world's leading cancer researchers.

Professor Jiri Lukas

Professor Jiri Lukas.

“It is a very strong international recognition which is not only good for me but also for Denmark; it is a prize for research that I have done exclusively in Denmark, originally at the Danish Cancer Society and more recently at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research at the University of Copenhagen. Winning is special to me because of the list of people who have received it before. All of them are eminent medical researchers that have shaped up molecular cancer research over many decades, and some of them were heroes of mine when I was a young scientist,” he says.

Past winners include the Nobel laureate Leland Hartwell, an American geneticist who co-discovered the principles of eukaryotic cell division (a crucial process, which is subverted in cancer cells), and Alex Varshavsky, a Russian-born American biochemist who discovered how a small protein called ubiquitin regulates vital cellular functions, and who pioneered molecular-driven approaches to killing cancer cells.

Blue sky approach to research

The award is given for a lifelong commitment to what Jiri Lukas describes as ‘basic curiosity driven research’. An approach he values a lot in his work.

“The so-called ‘blue sky approach’ is the key to what we should inspire our young colleagues to do; to be completely open-minded when doing their research and be very careful not to let any interesting information, especially the one that does not make sense at the first glance slip away. Nature is complex and the right answers are usually the ones we did not expect when we started. This is what the ARC is very aware of. The receivers are this kind of open minded scientists that are role models not only for cancer research but any disease research. I am so happy, yet very humbled to be in that company,” he adds.

Meeting for best brains

Lukas plans for most of the money to go into his laboratory but also has an idea that goes further than his own walls. He plans to spend some of the reward money on organizing an interactive workshop for 20-30 of the best brains in his field of science. Sit them together in a quiet place for three or four days, discuss the protein networks that determine the fate of human cells, and outline how to join forces to move forward.

“Science becomes more and more interactive and success demands a coordinated effort of many research groups,” he says. He intends to use the reward as a motivation to continue the path he is walking and live up to the expectations the prize leaves. “I do not want to consider this prize only as something I have done in the past and call it a day. It is a chance and an invitation to prove that the recognition was justified. It is motivating; I don’t feel close to retirement, with this prize. I am still very curious and I feel there still are discoveries out there for me to make,” he concludes.


Jiri Lukas:
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