Science Editor

In Hollywood, it's all over by March. In rapid succession, the People's Choice Awards, Golden Globes, and Oscars are handed out, accompanied by endless, airy discussions of dress and hairstyles.

Ever the more staid profession, science waits until later in the year to roll out the red carpets, and winners are usually safe from having their wardrobes and what is left of their hair dissected by the press. But with the MacArthur "genius" grants and Lasker Awards both announced within the last two weeks, and this week devoted to the Nobels, science award season is upon us.

The MacArthur grants are not an award, per se, instead consisting of grant money that is awarded based on an outstanding track record in a specific field. But they do come with $500,000 in unrestricted funds and the nickname "genius" grant.

The Nobel Prize usually is the crown jewel of a long career, and this year's science awardees follow that path (the average age of awardees is 60). MacArthur fellows, at least in the sciences, tend to be younger. Here, too, this year's awardees are typical, with the average age of just less than 37.

One of those fellows is Joseph DeRisi, associate professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California at San Francisco. Among other things, his research concerns infectious diseases and the technology used to understand them. DeRisi's lab is heavily involved in improving microarrays, and has made several technical innovations that have expanded their use into new areas.

Linking Viruses To Diseases They Cause

"We've designed a microarray that is capable of detecting basically every virus that has ever been," DeRisi told BioWorld Today. "We are using that chip to link viruses to diseases of unknown etiology. If there is a virus that's already known, but not associated with a disease, that will show up" in microarray analyses of patient samples.

The other goal of the chip is to pick up completely new viruses. The rub, of course, is that if a virus is truly new, then by definition its sequence is not on the chip yet. However, the chip contains the evolutionarily maximally conserved sequence of all known viruses, and any new virus is likely to have similarities to members of the class. Validation, as published in Science in May 2003, came with nothing less than identifying the virus responsible for causing severe acute respiratory syndrome.

"It was a new coronavirus, but related to other coronaviruses that were already known," DeRisi said. The sequences of those known coronaviruses on the chip enabled him and his colleagues to rapidly identify, sequence and characterize the previously unknown pathogen.

Asked whether he would use the funds to further his current research or if he envisions striking out in new directions, DeRisi answered, "Probably a little bit of both." And, he added, "I'm going to buy a new bike. I've been riding the same bicycle to work for 15 years."

The Lasker Awards are sometimes called the American Nobels, and this year, the Nobel Prize in physiology and the Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research both were given for discoveries relating to receptor families. While they did not discover a family of hundreds of receptors, as physiology Nobel winners Richard Axel and Linda Buck did for the olfactory system, Lasker awardees Pierre Chambon and Ronald Evans found that the family of steroid hormone receptors also is an extended one, consisting of no fewer than 48 members. Chambon and Evans shared the prize with Elwood Jensen, who described the first nuclear receptor to be discovered, for the steroid hormone estrogen.

The Joy Of Science Is In The Process'

Like the Oscars, the Nobels are last in a series of awards, and are the most widely recognized by the public.

Over the past decade or so, the prize in chemistry appears to have morphed into a prize for biochemistry, and this year was no exception. It was awarded to Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko (both Lasker Basic Medical Research Award winners in 2000) and Irwin Rose for their discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation. Described as the "molecular kiss of death" by the Royal Swedish Academy in the prize announcement, ubiquitin is the cell's decluttering system - it labels proteins that need to be destroyed. The discovery has had a variety of applications, most notably, Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc.'s Velcade (bortezomib), which was approved in May 2003 for the treatment of relapsed and refractory multiple myeloma and targets ubiquitin-mediated proteolysis.

Millennium announced last week that it had filed a supplemental new drug application for the treatment of patients with multiple myeloma who have received at least one prior therapy, and is conducting research into targeting the pathway in stroke-induced brain inflammation. Other companies with programs relating to ubiquitin include Rigel Pharmaceuticals Inc., of South San Francisco, and the Israeli company Proteologics Ltd., where both Ciechanover and Hershko are on the scientific advisory board.

In contrast, this year's prize for physiology or medicine honored more basic research. It went to Buck and Axel for their discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of chemosensory systems, including smell, taste and pheromone signaling.

While their research does have potential applications - in a press conference, Buck named the possibility of improving patient compliance with treatments by blocking the bitter taste of medicine - Axel stressed the importance of conducting basic research without already knowing where it will lead. "The joy of science is in the process," Axel told Swedish public radio in an interview posted to the Nobel Prize website.

And, every now and then, in a shiny new bicycle.