Alexander Varshavsky was born to do science: His father was a scientist, his mother a physician. He was also born into a society whose privations suppressed many of the great scientific minds of the period. “Before managing to escape from the Soviet Union in 1977,” he says, “I had some brushes with disasters that would have left me unable to become a scientist, had I not been lucky.”
Still, he won a place as a student in the chemistry department at prestigious Moscow University, and later at the Institute of Molecular Biology. In 1973, Varshavshy received his PhD on the topic of the organization and structure of chromosomes. When his scientific papers found their way into Western journals, he began to receive invitations to speak abroad, but came hard up against the Soviet barriers to travel. Eventually, Varshavsky defected to the United States, where almost immediately he was offered a position at the biology department at MIT. He spent 15 years there, studying first the structure and replication of chromosomes, before changing focus to the ubiquitin system, a new area of study at the time.
In 1992, he moved his laboratory to California Institute of Technology (Caltech), to become the Smits Professor of Cell Biology. He and his colleagues there continue to advance research in the field of ubiquitin and regulated protein degradation, significant to the understanding of cancer, immunity, birth defects, and many other illnesses.
Varshavsky is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the enormity of his achievements is reflected in the number of awards he has received in recognition of his work. This includes the first $1 million Gotham Prize in 2007 for an original approach to killing cancer cells, called deletion-specific targeting (DST), which, he says, “involves finding a genuine Achilles heel of cancer cells.”
Awards and Accomplishments
- Gotham Prize (2007)
- Wilson Medal
- Wolf Prize, Medicine (2001)
- Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, Columbia University (2001)
- General Motors Sloan Prize
- Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (2000)
- Gairdner Award (1999)