Jeremy Nathans, MD, PhD, an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, known for his landmark discoveries into the molecular mechanisms of visual system development, function and disease, is the recipient of the 2022 Mechthild Esser Nemmers Prize in Medical Science at Northwestern University.
The Mechthild Esser Nemmers Prize in Medical Science, which carries a $200,000 stipend, is given to a physician-scientist whose body of research exhibits outstanding achievement in their discipline as demonstrated by works of lasting significance. A jury of distinguished scientists from around the country made the final selection.
Nathans, the Samuel Theobald Professor of the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins Medicine, has devoted his career to studying the vertebrate visual system.
“I am humbled to be in the same company as the previous Nemmers Prize winners,” Nathans said. “And I am delighted to have this opportunity to strengthen my ties to colleagues at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.”
In connection with this award, Nathans will deliver a public lecture and participate in other scholarly activities at Feinberg in the coming year.
“Dr. Nathans is one of the greatest molecular neuroscientists in the world, whose remarkable work has transformed our understanding of vision,” said Eric G. Neilson, MD, vice president for Medical Affairs and Lewis Landsberg Dean. “He is an exceptional physician-scientist who has inspired many others, and we are thrilled to honor his scientific accomplishments and contributions to improving human health.”
Nathans, preeminent among molecular neuroscientists, identified genes encoding human light receptors (visual pigments) in rods and cones, as well as the mechanisms regulating the expression of these sensory receptors. This work led to his elucidation of the molecular basis of inherited variation in human color variation, including the variations that are referred to as “colorblindness.”
His laboratory went on to genetically engineer mice, so that instead of seeing with only two-color receptors, as mice normally do, they were able to see with three color receptors, as primates do — suggesting, in the evolution of sensory systems, that the brain has innate plasticity, allowing it to process information from novel sensory inputs unencountered previously. This work suggests that genetic alterations at the receptor level may be the driving force in the evolution of many sensory systems and led to his elucidating the molecular basis of inherited variation in human color vision associated with color blindness.
Other studies from the Nathans laboratory have elucidated the genetics of inherited forms of retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration. Nathans’ work on Frizzled receptors and Norrin/Wnt ligands identify the key role of this signaling pathway in retinal vascular development and in maintaining the integrity of the blood-retina and blood-brain barriers as well as the way in which defects in this pathway cause inherited retinal vascular disorders.
Nathans serves on the editorial board of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and he serves on the scientific advisory boards of The Foundation Fighting Blindness, the RYR1 Foundation, the Klingenstein Philanthropies, and the Life Sciences Research Foundation. A member of the National Academy of Medicine since 2011, his work has been recognized with numerous awards, including the Edward M. Scolnick Prize in Neuroscience by the McGovern Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the 2013 Arthur Kornberg and Paul Berg Lifetime Achievement Award in Biomedical Sciences from Stanford University School of Medicine.
Nathans received his Doctorate Degree in Biochemistry from Stanford University School of Medicine in 1985, and then his Doctor of Medicine degree in 1987. Previously, he earned a Bachelor of Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Following his studies at Stanford, he completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Genentech, Inc.
About the Nemmers Prizes
One of five Nemmers Prizes awarded by the University, the Mechthild Esser Nemmers Prize in Medical Science is made possible by a generous gift by the late Erwin Esser Nemmers and the late Frederic Esser Nemmers. It is the fourth Nemmers Prize to be established by Northwestern University and joins the Erwin Plein Nemmers Prize in Economics, the Frederic Esser Nemmers Prize in Mathematics, the Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition and the Nemmers Prize in Earth Sciences, established in 2016. The awards are given every other year.
In 2016, the inaugural award was presented to Huda Zoghbi, MD, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and professor at Baylor College of Medicine, whose research has focused on Rett syndrome and other neurological disorders.
Stuart Orkin, MD, an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Boston Children’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and a professor at Harvard Medical School a pioneering hematologist known for his landmark discoveries into blood cell development and the genetic basis of blood disorders, was awarded the 2018 prize.
Read more about Nathans and the Mechthild Esser Nemmers Prize in Medical Science at feinberg.northwestern.edu/nemmers.