Energy continues to build for the role of the mitochondrion in health and disease, a field pioneered by Douglas Wallace, PhD, director of the Center for Mitochondrial and Epigenomic Medicine at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. This week Dr. Wallace was named the recipient of the Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research, a high-profile achievement in recognition of Dr. Wallace’s scientific contributions as the founder of mitochondrial medicine.
The award was officially announced June 20 at the Biotechnology Industry Organization International Conference in San Diego. Since 2004, the award has recognized 14 outstanding researchers, two of whom went on to win the Nobel Prize. The Dr. Paul Janssen Award was established by Johnson & Johnson to honor the legacy of Dr. Paul Janssen, one of the most impactful pharmaceutical scientists of the 20th century. Dr. Janssen founded Janssen Pharmaceutica, N.V., now part of the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies.
“Dr. Paul devoted his life to making a difference for patients through scientific innovation,” stated Paul Stoffels, MD, chief scientific officer, Johnson & Johnson, in the call for nominations. “It takes creativity, courage and an unwavering commitment to bring forward new research. That’s why we are proud to honor the legacy of Dr. Paul by recognizing those innovative scientists whose discoveries help us better understand and, ultimately, solve the major health issues facing our world today.”
Dr. Wallace has dedicated his scientific career to studying the role of the mitochondria in human evolution and disease. Mitochondria are the organelles inside cells that produce most of the body’s energy. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA genetics and application of its principles to an array of patients led Dr. Wallace to show that mitochondrial DNA variation contributes to a wide range of rare and common metabolic and degenerative diseases as well as cancer and aging. His research program is an important part of CHOP’s newly launched Roberts Collaborative for Genetics and Individualized Medicine.
“For half a millennium, Western medicine has focused on anatomy, and for the past century, Western genetics has been constrained by the ‘Laws of Mendel,’” Dr. Wallace said. “While powerful, these biomedical paradigms have proved insufficient to understand and cure the common complex diseases. So what are we missing? Humans are animated and to be animated requires energy. The major source of human energy is the mitochondria, and the mitochondria have their own non-mendelian mitochondrial DNAs. Our work shows that once we organize diseases around energy instead of anatomy and consider mitochondrial DNA genetics as well as nuclear DNA genetics, a coherent pattern emerges for understanding the common metabolic and degenerative diseases.”
However, Dr. Wallace added, it has not been easy to convince the biomedical community of the value of this new bioenergetic perspective.
“As a result, I am extremely grateful to the esteemed Dr. Paul Janssen selection committee and to Johnson & Johnson for their recognition of the importance of bioenergetics in health and disease,” Dr. Wallace said. “It is my hope that this validation will encourage innovative young physicians and scientists to apply the principles of mitochondrial genetics and bioenergetics to the pressing clinical problems that threaten global health. Such efforts promise to have a profound effect on the well-being of all peoples.”
Dr. Wallace was selected for two other distinguished honors in the past year. In October, the Franklin Institute announced Dr. Wallace as the recipient of the 2017 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science, just a few months after he was inducted as a foreign member of the Italian Academy of Sciences. Dr. Wallace will receive the Dr. Paul Janssen award Sept. 8 in Belgium. He was chosen by an independent selection committee of world-renowned scientists and will receive a $200,000 cash prize.
“This major scientific honor in recognition of Dr. Wallace's pioneering accomplishments is well-deserved,” said Bryan Wolf, MD, PhD, executive Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute. “His dedication to scientific excellence has broadened the world of possibility in biology and medicine.”