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Molecular biologist wins top science prize

Michael Hengartner of Zurich University has won this year's Latsis prize for his work using a model organism to better understand basic biological processes.

The award, worth SFr100,000 ($79,000), is one of the most renowned research accolades in Switzerland and is presented each year by the National Science Foundation (SNF).

Hengartner's work revolves around a worm called Caenorhabditis elegans, which he has been studying for nearly 20 years. The creature is a nematode worm, a parasite which lives in plants and animals or in soil.

The importance of studying C. elegans became obvious when parallels were discovered between cell death in the worm and in humans. The mechanisms which cause cells to die are linked to genes that play a role in the development (and stopping) of cancer.

Research into programmed cell death (or apoptosis) is seen as key to treating cancer tumours, which are caused primarily by cells which fail to self-destruct. Robert Horvitz won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2002 for his research into apoptosis.

Molecular pathways

The work of 40-year-old Hengartner focuses on the molecular pathways that control apoptosis during development and in response to stress, as well as "the removal of apoptotic cells by their neighbours".

Hengartner also uses the worm to investigate mechanisms linked to the development of the nervous system. His research includes the regulatory networks that control the way genes manifest themselves.

The scientist spent seven years leading his own team at the prestigious Cold Spring Harbor laboratory in the United States before returning to Switzerland in 2001 to take up his current post as professor of molecular biology at Zurich University.

According to the SNF, Hengartner is leading efforts at the university to promote young talent and is one of the driving forces behind a new Life Science study centre in Zurich.

The Latsis award ceremony will take place in Bern on January 11, 2007.

swissinfo with agencies

Swiss National Science Foundation

The SNF is a private organisation, largely funded by the government, which promotes basic research in Switzerland. It supports research in all ...

In brief

The Latsis Foundation was created by Greek shipping tycoon John S. Latsis, who died in Geneva in April 2003, aged 93.

Each year it gives out four university prizes valued at SFr25,000, as well as one national and one European Latsis prize worth SFr100,000.

The national Latsis prize has been awarded through the SNF on behalf of the Latsis Foundation since 1984.

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