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Stem cell researcher honored with National Medal of Science

Rudolf Jaenisch, a stem cell scientist at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, has been honored with the nation’s highest scientific honor, the National Medal of Science.

Jaenisch, also a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is one of seven scientists to be awarded the medal, for his work on stem cells and the understanding of epigenetics — the molecular mechanisms by which traits can be passed down to future generations without changes to DNA.

Jaenisch now focuses much of his work on understanding neurological diseases, by using adult cells that can be turned back into cells resembling embryonic stem cells. His lab has used such cells to treat sickle cell anemia and alleviate symptoms of Parkinson’s disease in mice. But beyond their possible future use as therapies, Jaenisch is excited by the ability to take ordinary skin cells from patients with a complicated disease, like Parkinson’s, and create the affected brain cells in a lab dish — a powerful tool to understand the disease and screen treatments.

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“We really want to understand the mechanism. We want, of course, eventually to find also a drug which could interfere with the development’’ of the disease, Jaenisch said in an interview.

Jaenisch, 69, said he received the notification that he had won the award by e-mail, and that when he first started his scientific career four decades ago, when molecular biology was still in its infancy, he could hardly have anticipated the work he does now. Jaenisch trained and worked in Germany and at various US institutions before joining the Whitehead Institute in 1984.

In addition to the Medal of Science, five winners of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation were also announced today, for contributions that include flight-safety sensors and rocket propulsion systems.

Other Medal of Science winners are Jacqueline K. Barton of the California Institute of Technology, Ralph L. Brinster of the University of Pennsylvania, Shu Chien of the University of California, San Diego, Peter J. Stang of the University of Utah, Richard A. Tapia of Rice University, and Srinivasa S.R. Varadhan of New York University. Winners of the Medal of Technology and Innovation are Rakesh Agrawal of Purdue University, B. Jayant Baliga of North Carolina State University, C. Donald Bateman of Honeywell, Yvonne C. Brill of RCA Astro Electronics, and Michael F. Tompsett of TheraManager.

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“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,’’ President Obama said in a statement.

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