Ron Vale Awarded Albert Lasker Award

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School of Medicine

UCSF’s own Dr. Ron Vale, along with his colleagues Dr. James Spudich and Dr. Michael Sheetz, have been awarded the illustrious Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, considered by many in the scientific community to be a precursor to the Nobel Prize.

The three scientists will be presented the award on Friday, September 21, at a ceremony in New York City honoring “scientists whose fundamental investigations have provided techniques, information or concepts contributing to the elimination of major causes of disability and death,” according to the Lasker Foundation website.

Vale will split the $250,000 prize with Spudich, of Stanford University, and Sheetz, of Columbia University.

The trio began their research on axonal transport in the early 1980s and will now be recognized for their discovery of the protein kinesin and the mechanism behind its use as a molecular motor involved in muscle contraction, intercellular transport and cell movement. According to Vale, kinesin “may classify as close to the smallest protein machine that produces mechanical work.”

The understanding of this mechanism is leading to the development of new drug therapies for chronic diseases such as heart failure, cancer and muscle disorders. The Bay Area firm Cytokinetics, Inc., which Vale co-founded in 1997, is working on these therapies.

“I was very surprised indeed, let’s put it that way,” Vale said about the email announcement he received from the Lasker Committee. The committee had attempted to reach him several times by telephone, but Vale, as committed to his research as ever, was holed up in the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole, Mass., during the notification period.  

“I actually found out a couple of months ago,” Vale said. “You’re supposed to keep it a secret until this last week, so that was the hardest thing. Of course, I could tell my family and kids, so I shared it with them and that was a lot of fun, but otherwise I had to keep my lips sealed until last Monday.”

Vale received his BS degree in biology and chemistry from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his PhD in neuroscience from Stanford University. He conducted postdoctoral studies at the Marine Biological Laboratory and has been a faculty member at UCSF since 1986. Vale also founded a science education website called iBioSeminars.org, based at UCSF.

Vale revealed another surprise about how he ended up working at UCSF. “That’s a little bit interesting maybe for the Synapse,” he said, laughing. “I was actually an MD/PhD student at Stanford, and a lot of the work, some of which is relevant for the Lasker Award, happened during that time. … There was all this exciting science to be done, and things went really well and I ended up postponing my clerkships to keep working on this problem.”

As his research continued to yield results and job offers began to roll in, Vale postponed getting his medical degree indefinitely.