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Nobel Prize-winning ASU professor garners Research!America honor

2001 Nobel Laureate and ASU Professor Lee Hartwell.

March 10, 2017

Leland H. Hartwell, Nobel Laureate and director of the Pathfinder Center at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute and Virginia G. Piper Chair of Personalized Medicine, will receive Research!America’s Geoffrey Beene Builders of Science Award for his leadership and determination in building an outstanding scientific research organization as president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC) from 1997 to 2010. The Geoffrey Beene Builders of Science Award recognizes those who have provided inspiration and determination in building an outstanding home for research.

The award will be presented to Hartwell at the 21st annual Advocacy Awards at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C. The awards dinner, to be held on March 15, brings more than 400 leaders from government, industry, academia and health advocacy organizations to recognize top medical and health research advocates who have made an impact in advancing the nation’s commitment toward research. 

“Research!America is honored to recognize Dr. Hartwell for his exemplary leadership as a researcher, educator and lifelong advocate for scientific discovery,” Mary Woolley, president and CEO of Research!America. “Dr. Hartwell is deeply committed to educating the next generation of critical thinkers in health, education, technology and sustainability. We salute his achievements.” 

Hartwell won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on the cell cycle, a process that describes how cells grow and divide. His research provides a deeper understanding of how cancer cells grow uncontrollably in the body.

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. An estimated 40 percent of people will be diagnosed with cancer in their life; approximately 1.7 million people have been diagnosed with cancer in 2016. The National Cancer Institute reports there are more than 100 types of cancer. 

The human body contains trillions of cells, which grow and divide as other cells need to be replenished. Cancer occurs when one of these cells starts dividing uncontrollably, creating tumors that make us sick.

During cell division, hundreds of molecular pieces work together coordinating separation into two daughter cells. In his speech at the Nobel banquet, Hartwell likened cell division to an orchestra: “If you think of cell division as a symphony, we knew that the symphony had to be performed by thousands of musicians each playing a different instrument.” Hartwell used a genetic screen in baker’s yeast to identify the molecular musicians that regulate cell division. 

Baker’s yeast and other model organisms provide a simpler system to understand processes like cell division and often provide a foundation for research in more complex organisms including humans. With this approach, Hartwell discovered the gene that regulates the starting point of cell division. During his Nobel speech, Hartwell explained, “And it turned out that the same conductor performed this symphony in all types of cells — yeast, fruit flies, sea urchins, frogs and humans.”

Hartwell also discovered a series of checkpoints during division, where cells can pause to repair any damage they’ve incurred before continuing to divide. However, cancer cells are devious and evade checkpoints, allowing them to reproduce errors and form tumors. These seminal discoveries shaped our modern understanding of cancer. 

Dr. Hartwell’s leadership further elevated FHCRC into a premier research center working to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer, HIV/AIDS and other diseases. In 2010, Hartwell joined the Arizona State University to lead a personalized medicine initiative and has appointments in the schools of Education, Sustainability and Biomedical Engineering. He also leads a team that teaches sustainability science for all pre-service K-8 teachers and aspires to provide continuing education, internationally, for in-service teachers. In addition, Hartwell led the HoneyBee program at ASU overseeing a series of small clinical trials using wearable devices to monitor physiological parameters in clinical patients for a variety of diseases. Recently, he published a study identifying a four-protein biomarkers panel for the early detection of oral cancer, to serve as an adjunct to visual screening in high-risk populations.  

Other 2017 Research!America Advocacy Award honorees are Joe Biden, 47th vice president of the United States, who will receive Research!America’s Gordon and Llura Gund Leadership Award; Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who will be recognized with the Edwin C. Whitehead Award for Medical Research Advocacy; Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the NIH, who is the recipient of the Legacy Award; Kathy Bates, award-winning actress and Lymphatic Education & Research Network spokesperson; Phillip A. Sharp, Nobel Laureate and an Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and the Lupus Foundation of America.

Research!America is the nation’s largest nonprofit public education and advocacy alliance working to make research to improve health a higher national priority. The 2017 Advocacy Awards represent Research!America’s 21st year of recognizing the accomplishments of leading advocates for medical and health research. For more information, visit

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