8 november 2011

Frances Ashcroft wins top women in science award

Science | Health

Professor Frances Ashcroft, photo by Robert Taylor www.taylor-photo.co.uk

Professor Frances Ashcroft has won the top award in the L’ORÉAL-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards for 2012.

Professor Ashcroft is one of five women scientists from around the world, one from each continent, that will be named 2012 Laureates for their contribution to science at a ceremony in March.

The $100,000 award recognises Professor Ashcroft’s work in advancing understanding of insulin secretion and a type of diabetes that develops in the first months of life.

Professor Ashcroft is a Royal Society Research Professor at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Trinity College Oxford. She said: ‘This award honours not only myself but also the team of dedicated scientists and collaborators with whom I have worked. I have been enormously fortunate: there is nothing more exciting or more rewarding than discovering something new.’

In 1984, Professor Ashcroft discovered the missing link connecting an increase in the blood sugar level, as happens after you eat a chocolate bar, to secretion of the hormone insulin (see ‘Insulin, ion channels and improved treatments’ below). If this process fails, it leads to diabetes.

In subsequent studies, she unravelled how genetic mutations in this protein cause a rare inherited condition, known as neonatal diabetes, in which patients develop diabetes soon after birth. This has enabled many people with neonatal diabetes to switch to a better form of medication.
Professor Gunter Blobel, president of the award jury and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1999, said: ‘This award is testament to Professor Ashcroft's intellectual achievements and her energy, dedication and passion for her research. The judges were also struck by her commitment to communicating science to the general public. She is an inspirational role model for younger female scientists.’

The For Women in Science Programme, run by the L’Oréal Corporate Foundation and UNESCO, rewards scientific excellence and provides promising female scientists with fellowships to help them further their research. It also aims to highlight the need for greater participation of women in science.

The programme names five laureates each year, one from each continent. These prizes recognise the groundbreaking achievements of leading female scientists.

The 2012 laureates all come from the life sciences (the awards alternate between the life sciences and the physical sciences) and the winners were selected from nominations by a network of nearly 1,000 members of the international scientific community.

The award ceremony will take place in March 2012, at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. The other four laureates are: Professor Jill Farrant of the University of Cape Town in South Africa; Professor Ingrid Scheffer of the University of Melbourne, Australia; Professor Susana López of the National Autonomous University of Mexico; and Professor Bonnie Bassler of Princeton University.

Insulin, ion channels and improved treatments
The hormone insulin is essential to keep the concentration of blood sugar within narrow limits, and Professor Frances Ashcroft's research has focussed on how insulin release is regulated.

In 1984, as a young researcher at the University of Oxford, Frances Ashcroft set out to explore how a rise in blood glucose stimulates insulin secretion from the beta-cells of the pancreas.

She discovered a tiny pore in the outer membrane of the beta-cells, known as the ATP-sensitive potassium channel, that acts as a pathway for potassium ions to move out of the cell. Crucially, she showed that this channel was closed by the breakdown of glucose, and that this triggered a chain of events that culminated in insulin secretion. She had discovered the missing link connecting glucose to insulin secretion.

In 1995, Professor Ashcroft and others determined the DNA sequence that codes for the potassium ion channel. This enabled them to screen people with diabetes for DNA changes in the channel genes. They identified a common gene variant that causes a small, but highly significant increase in the risk of type 2 diabetes.

With a colleague Professor Andrew Hattersley in 2003, Professor Ashcroft’s team was able to determine how a mutation in the channel gene led to a rare genetic form of diabetes that developed within the first few months of life. Importantly, they found that the channel could be closed by sulphonylurea drugs.

The work of the Ashcroft and Hattersley teams has seen over 90 percent of people with neonatal diabetes switch to sulphonylureas from insulin injections. This has resulted in improved blood glucose control and a better quality of life for hundreds of patients.

More recently, Professor Ashcroft has focused on a different medical problem, that of obesity. She and her colleagues have illuminated the molecular function of a protein called FTO, which was previously known to influence obesity but whose mechanism of action remained a mystery.