Roeland Nusse receives Canada’s Gairdner International Award

The Stanford developmental biologist was honored for a lifetime of work on the Wnt signaling pathway, which plays an important role in normal development and in cancer.

- By Krista Conger

Roeland Nusse was honored with Canada’s Gairdner International Award for his work on the Wnt signaling pathway, which plays an important role in normal development and in cancer.
Norbert von der Groeben

Roeland Nusse, PhD, professor of developmental biology, is the recipient of Canada’s Gairdner International Award for his work on understanding the role of the Wnt signaling pathway in normal development and in cancer.

The Wnt pathway is made up of proteins, including one called Wnt, that transmit signals from outside the cell to the inside to trigger biological functions including gene expression and cell division.

The award recognizes excellence in fundamental research that affects human health. 

Recipients receive 100,000 Canadian dollars (about $72,000) to use as they wish; Nusse plans to donate his award to UNICEF to help provide protective equipment for health care workers caring for children amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. Nusse is the Reed-Hodgson Professor of Human Biology and the Virginia and Daniel K. Ludwig Professor in Cancer Research.

“What we’re going through now is in many ways shocking,” Nusse said of the pandemic. “The fundamental problem facing humans now is biomedical in nature. When one receives an award for biomedical research, it makes you think, ‘Can I now make an impact that goes beyond my own work to meet an urgent global need?’ I would find it difficult to accept the prize money in the context of current events.”

In 1982, Nusse collaborated with Harold Varmus, MD, then a professor in microbiology and immunology at the University of California-San Francisco, to identify Wnt as a critical cancer-associated gene in a mouse model of breast cancer. Nusse went on to show that the analogous gene in fruit flies, Wingless, plays an important role in regulating normal development. The finding highlighted the connections between normal development and cancer. More recently, Nusse has focused his research on understanding how Wnt signaling regulates the activity of tissue-specific adult stem cells in response to injury or disease. In 2016, Nusse was awarded a $3 million Breakthrough Prize for his work on Wnt signaling. 

“It’s very exciting to be recognized for a body of work, particularly by the Gairdner Foundation, which has such an impressive list of previous recipients,” Nusse said.

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