Welch Award News Release

Stephen C. Harrison

Scientist honored for decoding nature's black boxes

Harrison's research creates structural blueprints to help prevent and treat disease

BOSTON, May 20, 2015 – Working at the intersection of chemistry and biology, Stephen C. Harrison excels at creating the chemical “blueprints,” or architectural drawings, of complex macromolecular structures such as proteins and nucleic acids to understand their biological functions. His insights into the workings of viruses and the human immune response system are helping develop better vaccines and treatments of diseases such as the common cold, influenza, HIV, West Nile Virus, dengue and yellow fevers, and Ebola, among others.

Today the Houston-based Welch Foundation, one of the nation’s largest sources of private funding for basic research in chemistry, named the Harvard Medical School professor as the 2015 recipient of the Welch Award in Chemistry for his groundbreaking research.

“Dr. Harrison’s deep chemical insights and wide horizons have opened new windows into biology and medicine,” said Wilhelmina E. (Beth) Robertson, chair of The Welch Foundation. “His breakthroughs in basic research have improved our understanding of the chemistry that underlies biological systems and led to important advances in preventing and treating disease. Dr. Harrison epitomizes the mission of The Welch Foundation – to advance chemistry for the improvement of human life.”

Much of Dr. Harrison’s research focus has been on viruses. He determined the first atomic-level structure of a virus and later the structures of key proteins from viruses that are human pathogens, such as dengue virus and HIV. He discovered principles of virus assembly and detailed the various mechanisms viruses use to infect cells – for both viruses with membranes and those without. This work has pinpointed potential targets for antiviral drugs and vaccines.

In other work, he has helped explain how cells control expression of specific genes, and he is currently studying the architecture of kinetochores, key organelles for accurate cell division. In studying protein complexes with DNA, he determined the first atomic structure of sequence-specific protein DNA complexes and deciphered the principles of base-pair recognition. His structural studies helped recognize the sites on DNA where proteins attach and the consequences of these interactions for regulating gene transcription.

Dr. Harrison's long-standing interest in viruses has stimulated his recent focus on structural immunology to probe the human immune response to viruses. Advances in genome sequencing have enabled scientists to follow in great detail how antibodies are made in response to vaccination and how they recognize and bind with the proteins in the vaccine. Structural analysis of how the antibody response changes over time should contribute to more effective vaccines.

"Dr. Harrison has transformed our understanding of large macromolecular assemblies that are essential to the chemistry of life,” said Peter Dervan, chair of the Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board. “He has pioneered new methods in data collection and structure determination, tackling increasingly complex molecules. His work has had implications for numerous fields, including virology, DNA transcriptional regulation, signal transduction, vesicular trafficking and cell division.” 

“I’m the guy who makes the equivalent of the blueprints that allow an engineer to see how a machine is built and how it works; my blueprints are for biologists and chemists to understand how a subcellular assembly works on a molecular level,” Dr. Harrison said. “Turning biological problems into chemistry and creating detailed pictures makes it possible to reverse engineer the molecular machinery. We can figure out how to intervene when something breaks down or how to modify a biological process for therapeutic or production purposes. We turn the black box into a chemical picture of what’s going on in an organism.”

Dr. Harrison is professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology and of pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, and investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He earned both his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard University, and he has served on its faculty for many years. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a foreign member of European Molecular Biology Organization and of the Royal Society of London. Dr. Harrison’s many awards include the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize (with Don Wiley and Michael Rossmann), the ICN International Prize in Virology, the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize (with Michael Rossman), and the Gregori Aminoff Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (with David Stuart).

Dr. Harrison is married to fellow researcher and Harvard faculty member Tomás Kirchhausen.

The Welch Foundation advances science through research and departmental grants, funding of endowed chairs, an annual chemical conference and support for other chemistry-related programs. In addition to the Welch Award, the Foundation annually bestows the Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research to recognize the accomplishments of chemical scientists in Texas who are early in their research careers. Since its founding in 1954, Welch has contributed more than $805 million as part of its mission to support the basic chemical research that improves life.

For more information on the Foundation and a list of previous Welch Award recipients, please visit www.welch1.org.

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