With prize money of 300,000 euros, the Ernst Jung Prize for Medicine is one of Europe’s most highly paid prizes in the field of medicine (see box). This year’s award is shared between ETH structural biologist Nenad Ban and Göttingen-based neuroscientist Tobias Moser.
Nenad Ban has been a professor at the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biophysics at ETH Zurich since 2000. He was the first scientist to describe the atomic structure of ribosomes in the cells of higher organisms (eukaryotic cells). In living cells, ribosomes produce proteins according to the pattern set out in the genetic code. Of all the molecular complexes in cells, they are some of the largest and most structurally complicated. Decoding their atomic structure was thus a considerable challenge.
Ribosomes consist of two subunits, which are assembled in turn from several dozen smaller molecules. Ban’s working group was the first to describe the complete structure of both ribosomal subunits of eukaryotic cells.
Significance for cancer and metabolic disorders
Furthermore, the ETH professor and his team have also decoded the structure of ribosomes in the mitochondria of mammalian cells. Regarded as the ‘power plants of cells’, mitochondria are special structural regions that supply energy within cells. They have their own genome and a different type of ribosome.
‘Because of the fundamental importance of ribosomes for many elementary cellular processes, a potential malfunction can have devastating effects, including diseases such as cancer or metabolic disorders,’ says Ban in a press release from the Jung Foundation. Ban’s papers on protein biosynthesis in healthy cells form an essential basis for understanding changes to this fundamental process in diseased individuals.
An award for fundamental research
‘I am delighted and honoured to be receiving the Ernst Jung Prize, on behalf of not only myself but my whole team,’ says the ETH professor. ‘This award is also an acknowledgement of the interdisciplinary approach in structural biology that we have built up over many years at ETH in order to study cellular function.’ In addition, he says, it highlights the importance of fundamental research for understanding medically relevant cellular processes.
Ban, who hails from a family of natural scientists in Croatia, discovered his passion for biology at an early age. ‘Even as a child, I liked to experiment and used to study marine organisms on the Adriatic coast, where I spent my summers,’ he says in the press release. As well as science, the 50-year-old is also passionate about visual arts and film. He loves sport, something he enjoys primarily with his family, either playing tennis and basketball with his two teenage sons, or going walking or skiing in Switzerland with the whole family.
Ernst Jung Prize
The Ernst Jung Prize for Medicine is awarded by the Jung Foundation for Science and Research, which was founded in 1967 by the Hamburg shipowner and oil trader Ernst Jung (1896’1976). This year’s prize will be presented at a ceremony in Hamburg on 19 May 2017. Previous years’ prize winners include the ETH professors Martin Schwab, Ari Helenius and Ernst Hafen.