UW News

April 8, 2010

Pharmacology chair Bill Catterall lauded with 2010 Canadian medical award

Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering

Seven researchers from around the world—including UW’s Dr. Bill Catterall—were recognized this week as 2010 Canada Gairdner Award recipients.

The award is considered one of the world’s most prestigious medical research awards, and some 25 percent of recipients go on to win the Nobel Prize for scientific achievements. But Professor Catterall is quick to dispel that myth and related thoughts of grandeur. “Seventy-five percent of people who win the Gairdner award do not receive the Nobel Prize,” he said, with a chuckle. “The Gairdner prize is important in its own right.”

Catterall, who serves as pharmacology department chair, said he was both surprised and pleased to be recognized by the Gairdner Foundation, which has doled out awards since 1959 to recognize and reward the achievements of medical researchers. “The awards have a distinguished history,” he said. “People who are selected have accomplished very important things, and I feel honored to be included in that group of scientists. I felt great about it.”

He is recognized by the foundation for discovering the voltage-gated sodium channel and calcium channel proteins that underlie electrical signaling in the brain. The signaling is the basis of how the brain receives, processes, and sends information. Catterall’s work has also led to new understanding of the molecular mechanisms of function and regulation of these ion channel proteins.

In the future, Catterall’s work could lead to medications that may relieve chronic pain more effectively than existing drugs by blocking electrical signals in the spine, and similar medications to treat abnormal heart rhythms by blocking electrical signals in the heart.

Dr. John Dirks, president and scientific director of the Gairdner Foundation, said award recipients’ work has changed the face of medicine. “These awards pay tribute to the passion, dedication and vision that drive these extraordinary individuals to push the boundaries of medical science,” he said in a release.

Catterall said the prize recognizes work he’s conducted over the past 30 years, dating back to when he first set up his lab at the UW. He also said he believes that what he’s accomplished could only take place at the University of Washington. “The infrastructure provided here by deans, colleagues, collaborators and students to create the research environment is absolutely critical,” he said. “I really like to share any recognition like this with colleagues in the lab, colleagues in the department, colleagues who are chairs and senior scientists. We create the infrastructure that makes this possible, from the top all the way down to the bottom.”

Dr. Paul Ramsey, CEO of UW Medicine and dean of the UW School of Medicine, said that UW Medicine is fortunate to have many outstanding scientists in its ranks. “Among those, Bill Catterall is a superstar,” he said. “As the first person in the world to identify ion channel molecules, he initiated a floodgate of scientific advances that impact diseases and conditions as diverse as cardiac arrhythmias, hypertension, pain, and epilepsy.”

Ramsey added that Catterall is also a remarkable individual, research skills aside. “Bill is a wonderful person — intelligent, articulate, generous, and thoughtful. He has served as a role model and mentor for many scientists during their training and beyond. This is a highly deserved honor for a great scientist.”

Catterall will be officially presented with the 2010 Canada Gairdner International Award in October. The awards come with a $100,000 cash prize.