Thomas A. Steitz received the 11th Keio Medical Science Award from Keio University in Tokyo. Mr. Steitz, a Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale, received the award in a ceremony and commemorative symposium conducted by the University on November 1 2006.
The award, made to researchers in recognition of their outstanding achievements in the fields of medical or life sciences, is the only prize of its kind awarded by a Japanese University. It included an honorarium of 20 million yen, a certificate of merit in recognition of his outstanding achievement on the structural basis of the large ribosomal subunit function and drug development, and a commemorative symposium.
Mr. Steitz was honored for research he led that in 2000 produced the first X-ray crystallographic imaging of the large ribosomal subunit. From this work, he and his collaborators have gone on to identify the structural basis of antibiotic drug function and resistance associated with this fundamental cellular structure. They have founded Rib-X, a company developing a new family of antibiotics intended to combat bacteria that have become drug-resistant.
"It is surprising how rapidly our basic research on what was then the 'central dogma' of biology, was able to move into the realm of health application," said Steitz. "We had been studying the fundamentals of DNA replication, RNA transcription and reverse transcription, and protein synthesis. The ability to visualize this cellular machine gave us a whole new way to look at how bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics."
"When antibiotics work they cure the patient," said Steitz. Many antibiotics work by blocking a ribosome function that stops bacteria from propagating by interfering with their ability to make proteins. The work of Steitz and his Yale colleague Peter B. Moore, Sterling Professor of Chemistry, shed light on the specific molecular interactions involved between antibiotic and ribosome, and then further the on the molecular changes that bacteria evolve to become resistant.
"It has taken only 60 years from the time that antibiotics became widely available for resistance to become a serious health issue," said Steitz. "Nationally, according to a 2004 report in Nature, two million people get antibiotic-resistant infections and 90,000 people die of them each year."
While Steitz is interested in developing new strategies for effective antibiotics, he stresses that misuse of antibiotics is a leading cause for the development of resistance and that since bacteria divide so rapidly, people must be responsible when using antibiotics because "evolution will trump intelligent design."
Steitz has been a member of the Yale faculty since 1970, arriving directly after completing his post-doctoral training at Harvard and at the Medical Research Council Laboratory in Cambridge, England. He was appointed full professor in 1979 and was honored as Sterling Professor in 2001. He has served as acting Director of the Division of Biological Sciences and as chair of the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, and is also an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
His many major awards include the American Chemical Society Pfizer Award in Enzyme Chemistry, the Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Sciences, the Newcomb Cleveland Prize, the Lawrence University Lucia R. Briggs Distinguished Achievement Award and the Frank H. Westheimer Medal from Harvard University.