2021 Dickson Prize Awarded to Researcher in Aging

Cynthia Kenyon, Ph.D., a molecular biologist whose research has redefined our understanding of aging, has accepted the 2021 Dickson Prize in Medicine, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s highest honor.

The prize is awarded annually to an American biomedical researcher who has made significant, progressive contributions to medicine. The award consists of a specially commissioned medal, a $50,000 honorarium and an invitation to present the Dickson Prize Lecture on campus. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the date of Kenyon’s lecture has not yet been determined.

“It is our honor to present Dr. Kenyon with the School of Medicine’s most prestigious award,” said Anantha Shekhar, M.D., Ph.D., Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of Medicine. “Undoubtedly, Dr. Kenyon has fundamentally shaped our understanding of aging biology. Her work to overturn long-held assumptions about the aging process and her discovery of molecular mechanisms that modulate aging demonstrate the exceptional and influential research that the Dickson Prize recognizes.”

“I’m honored to receive this award,” said Kenyon, who is an emeritus professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and vice president of aging research at Calico Life Sciences, LLC, an Alphabet subsidiary focused on aging and age-related disease. “I’m grateful to my mentors and lab members and to all those who continue to explore this exciting and promising area of biology.”

Kenyon graduated as valedictorian in chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Georgia and completed her Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). While studying at MIT, Kenyon pioneered the identification of genes on the basis of their expression profiles, discovering repair genes activated by DNA-damaging agents. As a postdoctoral fellow at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, England, she helped to demonstrate the universality of developmental pattern formation.

In 1993 as a faculty member at UCSF, Kenyon discovered that a single gene mutation could double the lifespan of healthy roundworms—a finding that sparked an intensive study of the molecular biology of aging. Her research showed that the aging process is not random and haphazard as previously thought but, instead, is subject to active genetic regulation. Her work led to the realization that a hormonal network influences the rate of aging in many organisms, possibly including humans.

Since then, Kenyon and her lab members discovered a variety of genes that influence aging by coordinating diverse processes that protect cells and tissues. In addition, Kenyon and her team found that different kinds of tissues work together to control the pace of the aging process, and that individual neurons and germ cells can control an animal’s lifespan.

Kenyon has received many awards for her research, including an American Cancer Society Research Professorship, the Dan David Prize, the King Faisal International Prize for Medicine and the Association of American Medical Colleges Award for Distinguished Research in the Biomedical Sciences.

Kenyon is a past president of the Genetics Society of America, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine. In 2014, Kenyon became vice president of aging research at Calico Life Sciences, whose mission is to harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan, and to use that knowledge to devise interventions that slow aging, counteract age-related disease and enable people to lead longer and healthier lives.

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