Rudolf Jaenisch honored with National Medal of Science

For the second straight year, President Barack Obama is recognizing a member of the Whitehead Institute faculty with the nation’s highest scientific honor.

The president announced earlier today that Whitehead Founding Member Rudolf Jaenisch is among seven researchers to receive the 2011 National Medal of Science. Whitehead Member Susan Lindquist was so honored in 2010.

Rudolf Jaenisch

Whitehead Institute Member Rudolf Jaenisch is among seven researchers to receive the 2011 National Medal of Science.

As an award recipient, Jaenisch is being lauded “for improving our understanding of epigenetic regulation of gene expression: the biological mechanisms that affect how genetic information is variably expressed. His work has led to major advances in our understanding of mammalian cloning and embryonic stem cells.”

The National Medal of Science was established by Congress in 1959 and given annually as a Presidential award honoring those who have made “outstanding contributions to knowledge in the physical, biological, mathematical, or engineering sciences.”

In making today’s announcement, which also included the recipients of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, President Obama stated: “Each of these extraordinary scientists, engineers, and inventors is guided by a passion for innovation, a fearlessness even as they explore the very frontiers of human knowledge, and a desire to make the world a better place. Their ingenuity inspires us all to reach higher and try harder, no matter how difficult the challenges we face.”

Jaenisch learned through an e-mail from the White House last week that he would be named a National Medalist, saying that he was both “shocked and very honored” at the news.

“I’m very grateful, of course,” Jaenisch says. “But I’m really only partly deserving of this. Any success I’ve had scientifically is due in large part to all the imaginative, hard-working people in my lab. I can’t help but feel this type of credit should be distributed more broadly. I feel it’s a team honor.”

Jaenisch earned a medical degree from the University of Munich in 1967 but recognized immediately that he belonged not in the clinic but in the laboratory. He became a postdoctoral fellow at Max Planck Institute in Munich, studying bacteriophages. That early research ignited for Jaenisch what would become a lifelong passion for understanding gene transcription, expression, regulation, and transmission. He left Germany in 1970 for research stints at Princeton University, Fox Chase Institute for Cancer Research, and the Salk Institute.

He returned to Germany in 1977 to head the department of tumor virology at the Heinrich Pette Institute at the University of Hamburg. He arrived as a Member at Whitehead Institute in 1984, where he would set up a laboratory on the same floor—at the same time—as a young Whitehead Fellow named David Page. Now Whitehead Institute Director, Page says Jaenisch’s remarkable body of research, and resulting accolades, are hardly surprising.

“Having watched Rudolf up close for my entire life as an independent investigator, I can say definitively that there is no one else like Rudolf,” says Page. “The ferocity with which he takes on scientific questions is unparalleled. People often use the word ‘fearless’ when describing scientists, but in Rudolf’s case that’s just such a gross understatement.”

Page marvels at what he sees as Jaenisch’s ability throughout his career to emerge as a leader in each of his chosen areas of focus: from his initial work in random retroviral insertional mutagenesis, to embryonic stem cells and homologous recombination, to somatic cell nuclear transfer and mammalian cloning, and most recently, to perfecting cellular reprogramming and the generation of so-called induced pluripotent stem cells.

“Across each of these major research epochs, through generations of new technology, Rudolf has always managed to be in the lead pack,” Page says. “There are those who may excel in one of these areas, but to be an absolute leader through every one of these phases is simply unheard of.”

Jaenisch’s research achievements include generation of the world’s first transgenic mice and the first experiment showing that therapeutic cloning in mice can correct a genetic defect. He also conducted the first proof-of-principle experiments demonstrating the therapeutic potential of iPS cells by using such cells to correct sickle-cell anemia in mice and Parkinson’s disease in rats. Among his research priorities today is the use of patient-derived iPS cells to advance the study of such human diseases as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

After more than four decades of highly productive research and countless honors, one might assume that Jaenisch is ready to let the next generation of leaders—many of whom he trained himself—take things from here. And one would be wrong.

“I’m asked about retirement often,” says Jaenisch, “but I’m having as much fun as I’ve ever had. There are so many questions we have to address. I’ll stop only when it’s not fun anymore.”

Jaenisch is scheduled to receive the medal from President Obama at a White House ceremony later this year, at which time he’ll become Whitehead Institute’s third National Medal of Science recipient. Lindquist received the medal last year, while founding Member Robert Weinberg garnered the honor in 1997.