Retired Jackson scientist Douglas Coleman wins 2010 Lasker Award, 'America's Nobel'

Date: Sept. 21, 2010
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BAR HARBOR, MAINE, Sept. 21 -- Jackson Laboratory Professor Emeritus Douglas Coleman, Ph.D., a pioneer in obesity and diabetes research, will share the prestigious Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award with Dr. Jeffrey Friedman of Rockefeller University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The Lasker Awards, bestowed by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation of New York, are widely regarded as the "Nobel Prizes of America."

"I have always viewed the Lasker Award as one of the most esteemed biomedical awards, and it is with great pride that I accept this honor," Coleman said. "I was especially delighted to learn that I would be sharing this award with Jeffrey Friedman, who always acknowledged my earlier contributions to our field."

In the 1970s, Coleman conducted a series of experiments that led him to propose the existence of a "satiety factor" that would account for obesity and type 2 diabetes in certain laboratory mice. Friedman later identified that factor as a hormone that regulates appetite and body weight and named it leptin, from leptos, the Greek word for "thin."

The scientists' work showed that chemical and genetic factors -- not just willpower and eating habits -- are involved in obesity, opening possibilities for future pharmaceutical treatments. Their work also demonstrated that fat is not simply a passive energy-storage site, as previously thought, but is an endocrine organ that produces important hormones.

"Doug Coleman and Jeff Friedman harnessed the remarkable power of mouse genetics to provide profound insights into the biology of human obesity and diabetes," said Jackson Laboratory President and CEO Rick Woychik, Ph.D. "Their discoveries continue to influence 'diabesity' research at The Jackson Laboratory and throughout the world. Everyone at Jackson congratulates Doug for his pioneering research and his well-deserved Lasker Award."

Coleman's other honors include election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1998, the 2005 Gairdner Foundation Award and the 2009 Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine. With his half of the $1 million Shaw Prize award, he established two $100,000 endowments at The Jackson Laboratory. The Lasker Award carries a $250,000 honorarium, to be split between Coleman and Friedman.

The Lasker Awards will be presented at a ceremony on Oct. 1 at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan. Since 1945, the Lasker Awards program has recognized the contributions of scientists, physicians, and public servants internationally who have made major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure and prevention of human disease. Seventy-nine Lasker laureates have received the Nobel Prize, including 30 in the last two decades.

Coleman grew up in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, as the only child of English immigrants with limited formal education. The son of a self-employed and largely self-taught radio and refrigeration repairman, he spent much of his childhood investigating how things worked by taking them apart. He went on to study chemistry at McMaster University and earned a Ph.D., in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin. He joined The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor in 1958 and stayed until his retirement in 1997.

"It was a wonderful place to work, so I never pursued another position in academia or industry," Coleman said. "The Jackson Laboratory provided a rich environment, including world-class animal models of disease and interactive colleagues who had diverse interests and were always helpful and supportive of each others' research efforts."

Initially, Coleman had no intention of studying the diabetes/obesity syndrome, but in 1965 a spontaneous mouse mutation was discovered at Jackson and he began research that would consume much of his scientific thought for the better part of three decades. In addition to being obese, the mouse displayed severe life-shortening diabetes. Operating on the hypothesis that a blood-borne factor might regulate the severity of diabetes in these mice, Coleman used a surgical technique called parabiosis to join the blood supplies of different mice and then observe and measure the effects.

Based on this research, published in 1973, he concluded that the diabetes mouse over-produced, but did not respond to, a blood-borne "satiety factor," while the obese mouse recognized this factor, but was unable to produce it. Both mice kept eating after normal mice would stop. Subsequent studies suggested that adipocytes, or fat cells, produced the satiety factor and the hypothalamus contained its receptor.

"The scientific community did not readily accept these conclusions because obesity was considered strictly a behavioral problem, not a physiological problem," Coleman recalled. "Definitive proof of my conclusions required isolating the satiety factor -- a feat that resisted rigorous experimentation."

Finally, in 1994 Friedman succeeded in identifying the obese gene and demonstrated that it encoded the powerful hormone leptin. With the subsequent cloning of the leptin receptor, the field exploded.

"With these findings," Coleman said, "two long-standing misconceptions were definitively laid to rest: obesity was not merely a behavioral problem but rather had a significant physiological component; and adipose tissue was not merely a fat-storage site but rather an important endocrine organ."

Today Coleman, 79, lives in Lamoine, Maine, where he and his late wife, Beverly, established a 96-acre sustainable woodlot, about half of which was later donated to the nonprofit Small Woodlot Owners of Maine. The property features handicapped-accessible trails and a Beverly Coleman Memorial Garden of native wildflowers.

About The Jackson Laboratory

The Jackson Laboratory is an independent, nonprofit biomedical research institution and National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center based in Bar Harbor, Maine, with a facility in Sacramento, Calif. Its mission is to discover the genetic basis for preventing, treating and curing human diseases, and to enable research and education for the biomedical community.

About the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation

The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation fosters the prevention and treatment of disease and disabilities by honoring excellence in basic and clinical science by educating the public and by advocating for support of medical research. Founded in 1942, the Lasker Foundation presents the prestigious Lasker Awards, which recognize the world's leaders in basic and clinical medical research, and individuals with outstanding public service. For much of the 20th Century, the Foundation was led by Mary Lasker, who was America's most prominent citizen-activist for public investment in medical research. She is widely credited with motivating the White House and the Congress to greatly expand federal funding for medical research, particularly through the National Institutes of Health.

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