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March 14, 2002 -- No. 149

Rockefeller University professor to receive Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize

By LESLIE H. LANG
UNC School of Medicine

CHAPEL HILL -- A New York scientist is the second winner of an annual national prize endowed by a distinguished scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The prize is for an outstanding scientific contribution to the field of neuroscience.

The $10,000 Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize goes to Dr. Roderick MacKinnon, professor of molecular neurobiology and biophysics at Rockefeller University.

Dr. Edward R. Perl is Sarah Graham Kenan professor of cell and molecular physiology at the UNC School of Medicine. Perlís work in pain mechanisms has been highly influential. Thirty years ago, he was the first to prove that a particular class of nerve cells (now called nociceptors) responds exclusively to stimuli perceived as painful. His work has had a decisive impact on modern pain research, and these cells are now targets of intensive efforts to find drugs that block their function.

MacKinnon, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, studies the principles of electricity in biology through analysis of ion channel structure and function. He won this yearís Perl prize for solving the crystal structure of the potassium ion channel in 1998. Potassium, which carries a positive charge, is crucial for signaling in the nervous system, among other roles. Potassium currents in the brain, for example, underlie perception and movement, and the heartís contraction relies upon the steady ebb-and-flow of potassium.

"The voltage-gated potassium channel is critical to the nervous system for conduction along the axon," said Dr. William Snider, director of the UNC Neuroscience Center and head of the selection committee for the prize. "When MacKinnon solved the potassium channel crystal structure, scientists, for the first time, got a picture of how it might work."

Recently, again through X-ray crystallography, MacKinnon determined the three-dimensional structure of the chloride ion channel. The images, reported Jan. 17 in the journal Nature, reveal how the body regulates salt uptake in cells. They show an entirely new type of protein architecture designed to be an efficient conductor of chloride ions across the membrane of cells. Chloride ion channels are found in bacteria and throughout the animal kingdom. Several human disorders, including diseases of the kidney and muscle, have been linked to chloride ion channel mutations.

MacKinnon, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, graduated from Brandeis University and earned a medical degree from Tufts University School of Medicine. His numerous research awards include the highly prestigious Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 1999. Since 1946, 63 Lasker winners have also received the Nobel Prize.

On March 22 at 3 p.m., MacKinnon will accept the Perl award and present a lecture to faculty and students on the UNC campus.

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Note: Contact Snider at (919) 843-8623 or william_snider@med.unc.edu.

School of Medicine contact: Les Lang at (919) 843-9687 or llang@med.unc.edu