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UC alum wins Lasker Prize for medical research

C. David Allis was recognized for his groundbreaking work in epigenetics

C. David Allis was on a career path to becoming a physician when a University of Cincinnati biology professor suggested he get some practical experience in a research lab.

UC biology professor Steven Keller, the longtime department head, suggested Allis pay a visit to a busy lab in UC’s College of Medicine. At the time, scientists were just unlocking the very first secrets of human genes. Suddenly, a life of exploration behind a microscope seemed very appealing.

Allis took Keller’s advice and spent his senior year working in Dr. Michael Bharier’s research lab. He never looked back. Allis spent his career in research labs across the country where he unravelled the mysteries of epigenetics, the study of gene expression.

In September, Allis, now a professor at the Rockefeller University in New York, was honored with the Lasker Prize, America’s top award for biomedical research.

“For me it was a phenomenally important piece of my career,” Allis said. “If students get a chance to do work outside the classroom, I would say hop on it. For me, it was a game-changer. In my heart, I knew I would be happier doing research than being a physician.”

My hope is that these insights will ultimately help people live healthier lives.

UC graduate C. David Allis

Allis, 67, grew up in Cincinnati and is a 1973 graduate of UC’s McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, where he studied biological sciences.

The prize recognizes Allis’ work examining proteins called histones that make up chromosomes. Allis has spent his career studying the role that epigenetics play in diseases such as cancer.

The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation announced its award in September. The foundation created the awards in 1945 to honor fundamental biological discoveries and clinical advances that improve human health.

Allis was the recipient of the Lasker Award in basic medical research, which he shares with researcher Michael Grunstein of the University of California, Los Angeles. Allis examined epigenetics, the study of gene expression.

“I am humbled and honored to be a co-recipient of the 2018 Lasker Basic Medical Research Award,” Allis said in his acceptance remarks to the research journal Cell. “Doing science is interesting, fundamentally important and richly rewarding.

“My hope is that these insights will ultimately help people live healthier lives.”

UC graduate C. David Allis stands smiling in front of a whiteboard depicting a model of chromosomes.

UC graduate C. David Allis is the 2018 co-recipient of the Lasker Prize. Photo/Lasker Foundation

Allis met his wife, Barbara, while studying as an undergraduate. She is an alumna of UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning where she studied fine arts. Her sorority was next to his fraternity, he recalled.

“She must have been taking an elective but we ended up taking a literature class together. The rest is history,” Allis said.

The couple married and raised three children. UC honored Allis in 2007 with a Distinguished Alumnus Award.

Allis said his biggest “Eureka!” moment of discovery occurred in 1996 when his lab discovered a particular protein served as a gene regulator.

“It was a master switch for turning genes on or off,” Allis said. “Histones were thought to be passive — boring. But the protein we purified really did turn out to be this gene-activating switch. That was just tremendous.”

Soon, researchers around the world began investigating these proteins to determine if they could be responsible for advancing diseases such as cancer.

“It spawned a whole new area of biology called epigenetics. DNA alone, the genetics, doesn’t explain everything,” Allis said.

Rockefeller University professor C. David Allis examines an experiment on a lab bench with a female student.

Rockefeller University professor C. David Allis examines an experiment in his lab. Photo/Rockefeller University

Allis spent the past 20 years investigating the role epigenetics plays in disease.

“The disease I’m talking about affects the youngest children. We’re talking about deadly cancers — as deadly and awful as they come,” Allis said.

He said one particular case still resonates with him. After losing their daughter Elena Desserich to brain cancer, a Cincinnati couple started a foundation called The Cure Starts Now to raise money for medical research.

“I’ve had the privilege of meeting this family,” Allis said. “Tragically, kids are dying from this disease. It’s universally fatal and there’s no cure. I’m highly motivated now at my lab thinking about these children.”

UC graduate C. David Allis laughs with two students in a lab.

UC graduate C. David Allis is a professor at the Rockefeller University in New York. Photo/Lasker Foundation

Professor Theresa Culley, head of UC’s Department of Biological Sciences, said the award reflects well on Allis and his alma mater.

“As a department we’re extremely proud of Dr. Allis and the work that he’s done,” she said.

“This is a nod to his notable accomplishments in the field of epigenetics,” Culley said. “Dr. Allis' groundbreaking research has revealed the role of chromatin in how DNA expression can be modified within cells, with major implications for diseases such as cancer.”

Culley noted that Allis graduated summa cum laude from UC in biological sciences.

“This award to Dr. Allis highlights the importance and quality of undergraduate education in arts and sciences at UC,” Culley said. “We are excited to celebrate this notable achievement with him.”

Several distinguished UC College of Medicine professors have been awarded the Lasker Prize over the years:

— Albert Sabin, who developed the oral vaccine for polio.

— Nobel Prize nominee Elwood Jensen was recognized for his lifesaving work in breast cancer research.

Many recipients of the Lasker Basic Medical Research Award have gone on to win the Nobel Prize. Winners are chosen by an international jury of scientists.

The Lasker Foundation also honored AstraZeneca researcher John B. Glen, who developed the anaesthetic propofol, and Joan Argetsinger Steitz of Yale University for her work in RNA biology.

Featured image above: A researcher prepares a culture in a lab. Photo/Colleen Kelley/UC



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