AWARD. As recently as last fall, Ruth Palmer and her colleagues were finally able to identify a protein that binds to the receptor of the ALK gene in humans – after 15 years of hard work.
“Identifying the ligand for ALK was one of my major goals as a researcher, so it was really wonderful. The challenge now is to work with the clinical applications of the discovery,” says Professor Ruth Palmer, who is this year’s recipient of the Göran Gustafsson Prize in Molecular Biology.
She has been awarded the prize “for her significant discovery of the function and regulation of an important tyrosine kinase that controls cellular signaling and development”, where the discovery of ALK’s human ligand can be regarded as the crowning glory.
The gene Anaplastic Lymphoma Kinase (ALK) received its name from the cancer form that it was first described in, but it has been shown to be altered in a number of human cancer forms, among which are lung cancer and the childhood cancer form, neuroblastoma. The human receptor encoded by the gene has long been categorized as an “orphan”, as it was unknown as to which substance or substances could bind to the receptors on the outside of the cell and activate its enzymatic inside. In October, Ruth Palmer and her colleagues were, for the first time, finally able to report two ligands for the receptor in humans: sister proteins FAM150A and FAM150B. The binding between these substances and the receptor is strong, which may provide completely new ways of using drugs to attack the actual cancer forms.
“There are several new, well-functioning drugs that can inhibit the enzymatic part of ALK in different cancer forms, especially in lung cancer and lymphoma. But as always, more and new resistant mutations arise over time that become tomorrow’s challenge, with this kind of treatment. Neuroblastoma is a form of cancer that is in great need of new treatment strategies and, here, ALK inhibitors can be a new weapon, which many research groups the world over are working with, right now,” says Ruth Palmer.
The basic research that she and her colleagues work with is very close to clinical application – including their work with the mutations in ALK from patient samples from throughout the country.
Lab full of flies
The banana fly is an important animal model for the group that maintains large numbers of the little flies, in small containers, in one of the laboratories. Despite their size, banana flies share a large number of genes with humans and it relatively simple to manipulate their genetic material.
“One of the first experiments we did, when we started working with ALK, was to knock out the gene in the banana fly. It showed that this prevents the fly larva from developing any stomach muscles and they die fairly quickly,” notes Ruth Palmer.
Recently, the group published a new mechanism on regulation of the secretion of the proteins Wnt/Wingless in Nature Cell Biology, based on studies in the banana fly. The mutations in the genes that regulate this secretion are also known to contribute to the incidence of cancer.
Many years in Umeå
She is originally from Scotland, and received her research education from the present day Cancer Research UK in London, where she met her future husband, Bengt Hallberg, who was doing postdoc work there. After her disputation in 1996, she did a postdoc in San Diego and traveled back and forth to Umeå for several years, where Bengt had found a position. Eventually Umeå University was to became home to both of them for many years.
“From the beginning, I said to myself that I would only stay in Umeå a few years, but Umeå proved to be a good university and I really enjoyed being there. ‘We stayed there for fifteen years,” says Ruth Palmer.
In the fall of 2014, they moved to Gothenburg, for many reasons. In particular, they knew several excellent researchers here that they wanted to develop collaborations with, which in Ruth’s case, included Tommy Martinsson, who conducts research on neuroblastoma, amoung others. Other advantages of living in Gothenburg are the close proximity to Chalmers and the ease of traveling from here.
“I can easily travel to London for the day, for a meeting. Skype is great, but nothing beats meeting face to face,” she says.
A prestigious award
The Göran Gustafsson Prize is a prestigious award for younger researchers and is given out annually by KVA, within several subject areas. At the University of Gothenburg, the prize has previously gone to, among others, Fredrik Bäckhed, Richard Neutze, Jan Borén and Thomas Nyström.
“It is impressive to read who has previously been awarded the prize and I am extremely happy and honoured to receive it,” says Ruth Palmer, who on Friday celebrated the prize and a new publication with the research group.
But the prize also comes with a not so insignificant research grant – SEK 4.5 million divided over three years. The group is now discussing how the money should be used, and there are plenty of good ideas.
“The money gives us a real boost, with a chance to do experiments we otherwise could not do. We will target technically advanced experiments that should be able to provide truly interesting results if they are successful,” says Ruth Palmer.
This year’s five prizewinners will share nearly SEK 24 million. Volodymyr Mazorchuk, Uppsala University, will receive the prize for innovative work in representation theory and other parts of algebra; Felix Ryde, KTH, will receive the prize in Physics for innovative research on observations of violent astroparticle physical phenomenon; Xavier Crispin, Linköping, will receive the prize for developing and studying organic thermoelectric materials; Ruth Palmer, Gothenburg, will receive the prize in Molecular Medicine for her significant discovery of the function and regulation of an important tyrosine kinase that controls cellular signaling and development; and Olle Melander, Lund University, will receive the prize in Medicine for his genetic and clinical studies that clarify the biochemical and lifestyle related disease mechanisms in overweight and cardiovascular disease.
Here you can see a short presentation by Ruth Palmer, in conjunction with the award ceremony in Stockholm: