UW News

December 3, 2017

Kim Nasmyth — a UW postdoctoral alumnus — wins Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for discoveries in cell biology, genetics

UW News

Kim Nasmyth, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Oxford and former postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, is one of five recipients of the 2018 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. Nasmyth and other prize recipients were honored by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation at a ceremony Dec. 3 at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

According to the prize citation, Nasmyth was honored “for elucidating the sophisticated mechanism that mediates the perilous separation of duplicated chromosomes during cell division and thereby prevents genetic diseases such as cancer.”

Kim Nasmyth, receiving the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences on Dec. 3.

Kim Nasmyth, receiving the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences on Dec. 3.Breakthrough Prize Foundation

“My experience is that discovering the truth is not easy, but immensely rewarding,” said Nasmyth, in remarks at the ceremony.

Over the course his career — including his time at the UW, where he worked as a postdoctoral researcher in professor Benjamin Hall‘s laboratory — Nasmyth has studied single-celled species of yeast to understand the basic properties of cells and how they regulate fundamental behaviors.

Nasmyth has discovered and described key proteins in yeast cells that govern when a cell divides — a regulatory process that can be disrupted in diseases such as cancer. In addition, he has studied a ring-like complex of proteins called cohesin, which holds portions of genetic material together during complex cellular processes such as cell division. Nasmyth was even among the first scientists to describe how the physical position of a stretch of DNA within the genome can influence whether a gene is switched on or switched off.

Born in 1952, Nasmyth earned a degree in biology from the University of York in 1974. As a doctoral student under Murdoch Mitchison at the University of Edinburgh, Nasmyth worked with a postdoctoral researcher named Paul Nurse and would begin to study genes that governed cell division in yeast. In 2001, Nurse shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Tim Hunt and Leland Hartwell, then a UW professor and researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer research Center, “for their discoveries of key regulators of the cell cycle.”

Kim Nasmyth

Kim NasmythBreakthrough Prize Foundation

After Nasmyth earned his doctoral degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1977, he moved to Seattle to work with Hall, who was then in the Department of Genetics. As a UW researcher, Nasmyth isolated a gene in budding yeast that is a key regulator of the complex cell cycle that cells in many organisms, including humans, go through.

In 1980, Nasmyth moved to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory as a postdoctoral researcher. From 1982 to 1987, he was a staff member at the Laboratory for Molecular Biology in Cambridge, U.K. Nasmyth then joined the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna, Austria, where he became the institute’s director in 1997. In 2006, he moved to the University of Oxford.

Founded in 2013, the Breakthrough Prizes honor scientists for outstanding discoveries in the life sciences, physics and mathematics. The five recipients of the life sciences prize will divide $3 million. In addition to Nasmyth, the 2018 recipients for the life sciences include:

  • Joanne Chory of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute “for discovering how plants optimize their growth, development, and cellular structure to transform sunlight into chemical energy.”
  • Don W. Cleveland of the University of California, San Diego “for elucidating the molecular pathogenesis of a type of inherited ALS, including the role of glia in neurodegeneration, and for establishing antisense oligonucleotide therapy in animal models of ALS and Huntington disease.”
  • Kazutoshi Mori of Kyoto University and Peter Walter of both the University of California, San Francisco and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute “for elucidating the unfolded protein response, a cellular quality-control system that detects disease-causing unfolded proteins and directs cells to take corrective measures.”