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Cold Spring Harbor Lab president receives prestigious award for DNA research

The Gairdner Foundation praised the lab's Bruce Stillman's and Britain's John Diffley's pioneering research, which delineated the "exact sequence of events involved in DNA replication."

Bruce Stillman, president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory,

Bruce Stillman, president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, in 2015. Photo Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

Dr. Bruce Stillman, president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, has been awarded one of the top honors in science, a $100,000 Canada Gairdner International Award, for his pivotal research in DNA replication.

He will share the prize with Dr. John Diffley, associate director of the Francis Crick Institute in Britain, and a former postdoctoral researcher in Stillman’s lab. The Gairdner International Award, which recognizes scientists who have made seminal discoveries, was established 60 years ago by the Gairdner Foundation in Canada. The organization's aim has been to place a spotlight on global excellence in biomedical research.

“It’s a very prestigious award, one of the top in the world, and I feel actually very pleased to be a recipient,” Stillman said Monday. “It’s nice to be recognized for making a major contribution to science, especially by one’s peers.”

Stillman discovered the Origin Recognition Complex, often called the ORC, which directs the replication of DNA throughout the genomes of eukaryotic cells. Eukaryotes are all organisms from those comprised of a single cell to complex mammals made up of trillions. Coffee trees, bumblebees, infinitesimal amoebas, humans and whales are lumped in the great family of eukaryotes.

These organisms are further defined by the biological packaging of their DNA in the form of chromosomes, which are contained within a distinct nucleus.

The Gairdner Foundation praised Stillman’s and Diffley’s pioneering research, which delineated the “exact sequence of events involved in DNA replication.”

“Throughout my entire career, I have been interested in how chromosomes in our cells are copied so when a cell divides, each new cell winds up with an exact copy of the genome,” Stillman said, noting that, once unraveled, a strand of chromosomal DNA is 6.5 feet in length, or about two meters in the metric system.

“Copying two meters of DNA is quite a formidable process,” said Stillman, noting that it was dogged research in his laboratory, as well as research in Diffley’s lab, that helped puzzle out one of the most complex processes in the known universe.

“It’s like photocopying machinery in our cells, and it has to be done very accurately. There are only a few mistakes made with each cell division,” Stillman said.

His research also has helped provide a stronger understanding of how DNA replication careens out of control in cancer.

Aside from work underway in his own laboratory, Stillman, as president of the Cold Spring Harbor Lab, oversees some of the most innovative research internationally in the fields of cancer biology and neuroscience. He is behind the lab’s thrust, for example, to better understand the relationship between human nutrition and cancer.

Scientists who conduct their research at the 120-acre lab, set amid rolling hills on a lush waterside landscape, also are examining how inflammatory processes promote cancer growth.  

“The entire faculty of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory joins me in congratulating Bruce on receiving this well-deserved and prestigious award honoring his groundbreaking research accomplishments in the field of DNA replication,” Dr. David Spector, the laboratory’s director of research, said in a statement.

 “Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has benefited greatly from Bruce’s dedication to both basic research and his profound role as President and CEO,” Spector said.

As an expert in DNA replication, Stillman has been elected to the Royal Society in Britain, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Australian Academy of Science. He was the recipient of the Alfred P. Sloan Prize by the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation in 2004. Stillman recently was elected an American Association for Cancer Research fellow.

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