Professor wins Gairdner Award

April 12, 2019

Brandeis graduate, Professor and Rose C. Falkenstein Chair in Cancer Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine Susan Band Horwitz Ph.D. ’63 won the Gairdner Award, also known as Canada’s Nobel.

Horwitz was selected by the U.S. National Cancer Institute to figure out how Taxol, a plant alkaloid, can be used as an anti-cancer drug. Her role in “defining novel mechanisms of action and resistance of drugs of natural product origin, most significantly Taxol, and promoting their use for treatment of cancer” won her the Gairdner Award, according to the Gairdner Award website.

A hallmark of cancer and tumor growth is how fast their cells divide and spread. Dr. Horwitz helped establish that Taxol prevents microtubules from disassembling, thereby halting cell division.

Microtubules are highly dynamic protein polymers that give cells their shape. They are made out of two protein subunits, alpha tubulin and beta tubulin. The subunits come together, head-to-tail, to form long protofilaments. Thirteen protofilaments assemble parallel to each other to form a microtubule.

When Taxol binds to the beta-tubulin subunit, it causes net polymerization (addition of subunits). Without proper microtubule polymerization and depolymerization, cells can no longer divide correctly.

Dr. Horwitz’s meticulous work on Taxol’s mechanism allowed the drug to go into clinical trial. Now, Taxol is an FDA approved drug that has been administered to millions of breast and lung cancer patients. Her work on Taxol’s mechanism also paved way for a new class of antitumor drugs.

For her Ph.D., Horwitz worked under Nathan Oram Kaplan, who was the founding chair of the graduate biochemistry department at Brandeis, according to the National Academic Press. She chose Brandeis because of it has “superb science and yet a relaxed atmosphere,” said Horwitz. She got married after her third year and gave birth to twins five days after defending her biochemistry thesis.

Dr. Horwitz holds membership in The National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

Horwitz is also a recipient of the C. Chester Stock Award from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the Warren Alpert Foundation Prize from Harvard Medical School, The Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Cancer Research, the American Cancer Society’s Medal of Honor and the AACR Lifetime Achievement Award in Cancer Research.

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