UK scientist is winner of 2023 MJFF Robert A. Pritzker Prize
Parkinson's researcher, mentor Dario Alessi, PhD, awarded $200K grant
U.K. scientist Dario Alessi, PhD, has been named the winner of the 2023 Robert A. Pritzker Prize for Leadership in Parkinson’s Research — awarded annually by the Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) to a researcher who makes exceptional contributions in the field of Parkinson’s disease and seeks to mentor the next generation of investigators.
For this year, the Pritzker Prize comes with a $200,000 research grant for the winner.
Alessi, a biochemist, is a professor of signal transduction at the School of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee, in Scotland.
He’s also the director of the university’s MRC PPU research institute — fully, the Medical Research Council Protein Phosphorylation and Ubiquitylation Unit. The MRC PPU is a collaboration between scientists and some of the world’s leading biopharmaceutical companies.
“Dr. Alessi has trailblazed areas of science that are key to our understanding of the genetics of Parkinson’s disease,” Shalini Padmanabhan, PhD, MJFF vice president of discovery and translational research, said in a foundation press release.
Pritzker Prize winner works to mentor young researchers
The MRC PPU studies how disease can result from disruptions in phosphorylation and ubiquitin networks with the overarching goal of developing new treatments for neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s, as well as cancer and inflammation.
Phosphorylation is like putting a small chemical tag called a phosphate group on a protein. It’s a way cells use to control and regulate the activity of proteins; ubiquitin networks are like a tagging system inside cells. Proteins tagged with ubiquitin, a small protein, can be directed to specific places in the cell, like recycling bins or processing centers.
Padmanabhan cited Alessi’s efforts to illuminate the pathology of the LRRK2 mutation, a common genetic cause of Parkinson’s, and his role in guiding the organization’s LRRK2 research funding and strategy.
“This work provided a greater understanding of LRRK2 that is being leveraged in ongoing and future trials of therapies to inhibit LRRK2 and hopefully slow the progression of the disease,” said Padmanabhan, who presented Alessi with the prize at an MJFF recent research roundtable event in New York.
Having this award funding will be transformational to furthering our progress on Parkinson’s research and moving us closer to finding treatments that cure the disease. … It also helps us achieve a key goal in the lab: giving students and other researchers fantastic opportunities to learn about research and become leading experts in the field.
According to Padmanabhan, Alessi’s commitment to open and collaborative science is seen not just in his sharing of reagents — used to perform chemical reactions — and other tools to further the understanding of biology. Instead, it extends to formative partnerships and mentoring leaders in Parkinson’s research.
Alessi called it “an incredible honor” to be named the winner of the Pritzker Prize.
“Having this award funding will be transformational to furthering our progress on Parkinson’s research and moving us closer to finding treatments that cure the disease,” Alessi said.
“It also helps us achieve a key goal in the lab: giving students and other researchers fantastic opportunities to learn about research and become leading experts in the field,” he added.
Alessi has distinguished himself as global leader in the study of kinases, a cellular protein class that includes LRRK2.
He also leads an international research network team that investigates the underlying biologic genetic mutations in Parkinson’s.
The team is part of a coordinated Sergey Brin Family Foundation-funded research initiative, Aligning Science Across Parkinson’s, which seeks to use collaboration, research-enabling resources, and data sharing to find a cure faster. The MJFF implements the initiative.
The Pritzker Prize has been awarded each year since 2011. It was established by MJFF donors Karen Pritzker, daughter of Robert A. Pritzker, for whom the prize is named, and her late husband, investor Michael Vlock. Donations from Pritzker and Vlock fund the award.
The award is named for prominent industrialist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur Robert A. Pritzker, founder of The Marmon Group and president of Colson Associates, holding companies for a variety of medical and manufacturing businesses. While at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), Pritzker also was an early promoter of medical engineering and helped to enlarge the biomedical research community by supporting the IIT’s Pritzker Institute for Biomedical Science and Engineering.
The prize’s jury panel is the foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board, with criteria including the nominee’s entire body of work in Parkinson’s, with a focus on its impact on accelerating therapy development and on the field itself. The panel also considers nominees’ commitment to patient-relevant science as their influence on, and encouragement of, early-stage Parkinson’s researchers.