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Outstanding scientists awarded the 2013 MRC Millennium Medal

28 Feb 2013

The achievements of MRC researchers Professor Sir Philip Cohen and Sir Greg Winter were recognised at the prestigious MRC Millennium Medal Awards Ceremony at the House of Commons on 27 February. The event was hosted by Rt Hon Dr Vince Cable MP, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Dr Cable commented: “There are many people alive today who can attribute their health and wellbeing to the discoveries of Sir Philip and Sir Greg, and to the MRC for seeing the potential of these two exceptional scientists and their revolutionary ideas. Let’s hope that over the next one hundred years countless more scientists make discoveries that prove just as significant — and beneficial.”

Sir Philip and Sir Greg, both pioneers in the medical research field, have made significant contributions to the health and wealth of the UK and the global community. Their discoveries, which have been applied on an extraordinary scale, demonstrate the importance of long-term investment in basic science and the crucial role of collaboration in the race to tackle the greatest health problems facing our society. This year the MRC celebrates 100 years of life-changing discoveries, and the medal shines a light on the extraordinary triumphs of MRC scientists.

Sir Philip, former Director of the MRC Protein Phosphorylation Unit (PPU)in Dundee, has devoted his career to studying a cell regulation process called phosphorylation, an endeavour which has contributed to one of the fastest growing areas of drug research. He is also known for his pioneering collaborations with the pharmaceutical industry — most notably, the Division of Signal Transduction Therapy which he established in 1998. This is a unique collaboration between researchers from the MRC PPU, the College of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee and six pharmaceutical companies. The collaboration employs 200 staff and has brought in more than £50 million in funding.

MRC Chief Executive Sir John Savill commented: “Philip’s distinguished career at the MRC Protein Phosphorylation Unit and his remarkable work to establish the Division of Signal Transduction Therapy proves that he is a worthy winner.”

On receiving the award Sir Philip said: “It’s wonderful to get a medal for spending your whole life doing something you’ve really enjoyed. I am deeply honoured to accept this honour from the Medical Research Council. The organisation has offered me tremendous support for the work I have done in Dundee and I am happy that, with the support of colleagues, I have been able to deliver some very good results.”

At the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the late 1970s and early 1980s Sir Greg was interested in the idea that all antibodies (part of the immune system that fights invading bacteria and viruses) have the same basic structure, with only small changes that make them specific for one target. To test this theory, he transplanted small parts of mouse antibodies into human antibodies, in the process ‘humanising’ them and solving the problem of patient immune responses against mouse-derived antibody treatments. These treatments are now involved in around 65 per cent of marketed antibody drugs today, including Humira and Herceptin, for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and breast cancer respectively. In 2010 antibody therapies had a global market valued at £25 billion.

On presenting Sir Greg’s medal, Sir John Savill said: “While at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge Greg was regarded by his colleagues as an entrepreneur in residence. Greg has made enormous contributions in terms of discovery and translation.”

On receiving the award Sir Greg said: “I’ve had a great time working in an organisation that has high expectations and freedom for scientists to get on with their research as it proves that we can deliver.”

Sir John closed the event by saying: “Medical research is a long game. We don’t get benefits from science unless people commit their whole career to discovery and translation. Philip and Greg have both done this.”

The MRC Millennium Medal, which was inaugurated in 2000, recognises MRC-funded scientists for outstanding research. Previous winners have included Dr Cesar Milstein, for his pioneering work on monoclonal antibodies; Professor Tom Meade, for his contribution to UK health, particularly in the treatment and prevention of cardiovascular disease; Professor Sir Peter Mansfield, who played an instrumental role in the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI); and Professor Sir Edwin Southern for his outstanding impact on genetic analysis and his invention of both the Southern blotting technique and DNA microarray technology.

Over the past century, the Medical Research Council has been at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers’ money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health.

Today, MRC-funded scientists tackle some of the greatest health problems facing humanity in the 21st century, from the rising tide of chronic diseases associated with ageing to the threats posed by rapidly mutating micro-organisms.

The MRC Centenary Timeline chronicles 100 years of life-changing discoveries and shows how our research has had a lasting influence on healthcare and wellbeing in the UK and globally, right up to the present day. www.centenary.mrc.ac.uk

The MRC has also produced a booklet (PDF, 1.52MB) which includes some additional information about Sir Philip’s and Sir’s Greg’s careers. This can be downloaded here.

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