William A. Catterall honored

Neuroscientist wins $50,000 award from Bristol-Myers Squibb

Jun 19, 2003
Obaid Siddiqui(osiddiqui@the-scientist.com)

William A. Catterall, professor and chair of pharmacology at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, is the recipient of the 16th annual Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Neuroscience Research. The $50,000 award is in recognition of Catterall's pioneering discoveries of the sodium and calcium channel proteins.

Catterall discovered the sodium and calcium channel proteins, which were the first two major classes of voltage-gated ion channel proteins. "He is one of the people who opened up the molecular biological study of ion channels," said Eric R. Kandel, who shared the 2000 Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology for his work on neural signal transduction.

As a result of his groundbreaking work, "our understanding is at a completely new level," said Kandel, a professor at Columbia University. "We have been able to characterize diseases on the basis of seeing mutations in the sequence that encode ion channels and we now have the structure of ion channels."

"These are the fundamental studies that have revolutionized our understanding of how signaling occurs in the nervous system," Kandel told The Scientist. "These channels are the most important signaling molecules and neurons, and he opened up the whole field."

Bristol-Myers has given out the Distinguished Achievement Award since 1977, when then-CEO of Bristol-Myers, Richard L. Gelb, was cured of esophageal cancer, said Kathleen Poss, director of the company's Strategic Science & Medicine division." He felt so indebted to the cancer community that he wanted to give back, so he instigated this program," Poss told The Scientist.

This year's cancer award went to Elizabeth Blackburn, of the University of California, San Francisco. In addition to cancer, the program now covers nutrition, neuroscience, cardiovascular, infectious diseases, and metabolic diseases research. Within each field, a peer-nominated scientist is selected for the award, and the company each year presents at least one 5-year, $500,000 unrestricted research grant, except in nutrition, in which the grant is 3 years for $300,000. Waun Ki Hong of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston will be chief investigator of the 5-year grant awarded this year in cancer research.

"On average we get between thirty to forty nominations per award area," Poss said. "In the 25-year history of this unrestricted grants program, we have had sixteen either grant recipients or Achievement Award winners go on to win the Nobel Prize."

Catterall's award was "long overdue," Kandel said. "He is an extremely far-sighted, decent, generous, creative, and intelligent person," he said. "He's really a role model; a scientist's scientist."

Catterall, who was traveling this week and could not be reached for comment, will officially receive the award and a silver commemorative medallion with the other 2003 award winners at a dinner in New York City on October 16.