Prestigious Japan Prize goes to epigeneticist with master's, Ph.D. from IU Bloomington

Jan. 30, 2014


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- C. David Allis, a pioneer in the field of epigenetics and the relationship between genes and disease who received his master's degree and Ph.D. in biology from Indiana University Bloomington, has received the Japan Prize, one of the most prestigious international prizes in science.

Allis studied in the laboratory of then IU biologist Anthony P. Mahowald, receiving his master's degree in 1975 and Ph.D. in 1978 before moving on to academic positions at Baylor College of Medicine, the University of Virginia and his current position as the Tri-Institutional Professor and Joy and Jack Fishman Professor at The Rockefeller University. He heads Rockefeller’s laboratory of chromatin biology and epigenetics.

In 2011, Allis returned to IU Bloomington to present the Tracy M. Sonneborn Lecture on the topic “Beyond the Double Helix: Varying the ‘Histone code.’”

The Japan Prize, announced Jan. 29, is awarded annually to scientists and engineers from around the world who have made significant contributions to the advancement of science and technology, thereby furthering the cause of peace and prosperity of mankind.

Each year two fields of scientific endeavor are honored, with the Japan Prize laureates receiving a certificate of merit, a prize medal and a cash prize of 50 million yen (US$481,000).

“Dave was a dream of a graduate student with the uncommon ability to make nearly every experiment succeed,” said Mahowald, now the Louis Block Professor Emeritus of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology at the University of Chicago. “He first teamed with a postdoc, Gail Waring, now at Marquette University, to develop techniques to isolate the progenitors of the fly's germ cells -- called pole cells because they are found at the posterior pole of the embryo -- and then he used these isolated cells to identify a unique protein constituent of the cells and to follow their development in vitro.”

Mahowald said that even though histones were not in vogue at the time, Allis foresaw their importance and chose a postdoctoral lab -- at the University of Rochester -- that would enable him to continue his study of chromatin in both germ cell and somatic lineages.

“It was a fantastic choice,” Mahowald said.

In making the announcement, the Japan Prize Foundation lauded Allis for his “world-first discovery of histone modifications as fundamental regulators of gene expression.” That discovery elucidated how chemical modifications of histone proteins, around which DNA wraps itself in the cell’s nucleus, affect gene expression. His work then ignited the field of epigenetics, a relatively new area of study that explores the inheritance of physical changes that cannot be traced back to mutations in the DNA sequence.

Recent studies have identified epigenetic changes such as histone modifications as a factor in the development of some types of cancer and have led to the development of new drugs that work to treat tumors at the molecular level. A drug to regulate histone acetylation has already been approved and used clinically in the U.S. to treat patients of cutaneous T-cell lymphoma and histone modifications have also been found to play an important role in cell reprogramming.