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Professor John Ellis Wins Gairdner Award

Originally Published 26 April 2004

The Department of Biological Sciences is proud to report a really outstanding item of news, John Ellis FRS, Emeritus Professor in the Department, has been awarded one of the Gairdner Foundation’s 2004 International Awards for Achievement in Medical Research.

The "Gairdners" are one of the most prestigious awards in all of medical science, and recognise outstanding contributions by scientists whose work will significantly improve the quality of human life.

The Foundation is based in Canada and its International Awards are among the most highly prized and respected in science; indeed more than 25% of Gairdner Award winners are subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize.

John Ellis is a founder member of Biological Sciences at Warwick and has worked in the Department for over 30 years. For much of that time his work focussed on how the proteins essential for photosynthesis in plants are synthesised and then transported within plant cells to the chloroplasts, the intracellular structures within which they function.

This work led him -- from the mid-1980s onwards -- to develop more general ideas about how newly-synthesized proteins are treated by cells to ensure that they fold up and find the appropriate partner proteins with which they function. His contributions were crucial to the development of a new picture for this process, involving the action of specialised proteins as ‘molecular chaperones’ overseeing the productive interactions of other proteins. John Ellis was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1983.

This year, the Gairdner recognises the contribution that Professor Ellis, and two of his colleagues, have made to the establishment of a new scientific model that is already impacting on medicine.

The Gairdner award to John is shared by Ulrich Hartl of the Max Planck Institute at Martinsried, Germany, who contributed biochemical and cell biological work on the action of many molecular chaperones, and Art Horwich of Yale who contributed genetic and structural work on one very well-defined molecular chaperone. The Gairdner recognizes the complementary contributions made by these 3 researchers to the establishment of a new scientific paradigm which has already had impact in medicine where a host of conditions from cystic fibrosis to Alzheimer’s disease are now recognised as ‘protein folding disorders’.

Each year 3-5 biomedical scientists are honoured, but the number of UK-based winners is very small. Over the past 25 years, only 8 UK-based scientists have received the Gairdner and 6 of those (James Black, Sydney Brenner, Cesar Milstein, Paul Nurse, Fred Sanger, John Sulston) went on to receive a Nobel Prize.

Professor Ellis said: "I am surprised and delighted for my research to be honoured in this way."

Professor Robert Feedman, Chair of Biological Sciences, said: "The 2004 Gairdner award honours scientists who have revolutionised our understanding about basic cellular functions. The resulting human benefits in terms of alleviating disease will be enormous. Professor Ellis's groundbreaking research is now being recognised with a prestigious international award, and it is just great to see such a modest man rewarded for his work."

Professor Ellis will receive the award at a conference in Toronto, Canada, in October when Gairdner winners past and present reveal the results of their latest work.