Sjöberg Prize awarded for decisive discoveries about cell growth

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Sjöberg Prize 2020 of one million US dollars to Michael Hall and David Sabatini. The two researchers have radically changed ideas about cell growth, an important factor in the development of cancer. In doing so, they laid the foundation for new forms of cancer treatment.

When cells divide and grow uncontrollably, it results in cancer. Using a toxin that originates from Easter Island, rapamycin, Michael N. Hall, from Biozentrum, Universität Basel, Switzerland, and David M. Sabatini, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, USA, have answered important biological questions about cell metabolism and cell growth.

Michael Hall used rapamycin in studies of basic functions in yeast cells. He discovered two important proteins, TOR 1 and TOR 2. Previously, it was believed that cells grew more randomly, but researchers were now able to show that these two proteins govern how cells grow by controlling how they use the available nutrients. Simply put, TOR functions as a type of project manager in the cell, deciding how nutrients will be used.

David Sabatini discovered the equivalent protein in mammals, which came to be called mTOR. He has described in detail how mTOR senses the availability of nutrients and controls how they are used in vital processes in human cells. In some types of cancer, mTOR has been shown to be overactive and stimulate the growth of cancer cells.

Hundreds of studies

Hundreds of studies are being conducted around the world, including in Sweden, with the aim of transforming the discovery and understanding of mTORs function into new medical treatments.

“Treatment with mTor inhibitors is associated with significant side effects, but they are already part of the treatment arsenal for advanced kidney cancer. This field has great potential for development, and there is optimism that new generations of inhibitors and new combinations will be both effective and have fewer side effects,” says Bengt Westermark, chair of the prize committee.

Both Michael Hall and David Sabatini expressed surprise on being told that they have been awarded the Sjöberg Prize for their work, and each believe the prize money has the potential to be of great benefit to their research in the future:

“I am truly surprised, honoured and touched. And particularly happy to share the prize with Michael Hall given our long history in the mTOR field. Something that has really characterised our lab in the past is the desire to go into new areas and now I can say: ‘Go for it!’. The prize money will give us the opportunity to be adventurous,” says David Sabatini.

FACTS The Sjöberg Prize

This is the fourth time the Sjöberg Prize has been awarded. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences selects the Laureates and the Prize is financed by the Sjöberg Foundation. It was established after Bengt Sjöberg, a Swedish businessman who had cancer himself, donated two billion Swedish krona to promote scientific research that primarily focuses on cancer, health and the environment. Bengt Sjöberg came from Lysekil in Sweden but lived and worked in Hong Kong for many years.

Citation and Laureates

The Sjöberg Prize 2020 is awarded “for their discovery of mTOR and its role in the control of cell metabolism and growth”. The prize amount of one million US dollars is shared equally between the Laureates. The majority, 900,000 US dollars, is funding for future research.

Michael N. Hall is a Professor of Biochemistry at Biozentrum, University of Basel, Switzerland. He was born in 1953 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and received his Ph.D. in 1981 from Harvard University, Cambridge, USA.

Read more at the University of Basel website

David M. Sabatini is a Professor of Biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a member of the Whitehead Institute, Cambridge, USA. He was born in 1968 in New York and qualified as a physician and Ph.D. in 1997 at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, USA.

Read more at the MIT website



Bengt Westermark
Chair of the Prize Committee
+46 70 818 1844

Rune Toftgård
Secretary of the Prize Committee
+46 8 673 9560

Mef Nilbert
Professor at Lund University and the University of Copenhagen
+46 70 7968069

Pekka Katajisto
Senior Researcher at Karolinska Institutet
+46 70 4802046

Press contact

Eva Nevelius
Press Secretary at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
+46 70 878 6763

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