Tom Jessell Wins Prestigious Neuroscience Award

February 28, 2013

Dr. Jessell Selected as the 2013 Edward M. Scolnick Prize in Neuroscience from MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research

Columbia developmental neurobiologist Thomas Jessell, PhD has been honored by the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT as the winner of the 2013 Edward M. Scolnick Prize in Neuroscience. The $100,000 prize, which is endowed through a gift from Merck, is awarded annually by the McGovern Institute to recognize outstanding advances in the field of neuroscience.

Thomas Jessell, PhD

Thomas Jessell, PhD (photo credit: Columbia University Medical Center)

Dr. Jessell is the Claire Tow Professor of Neuroscience and professor of biochemistry & molecular biophysics at Columbia University Medical Center, member of the Columbia University Motor Neuron Center, and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). He received his PhD from Cambridge University, and previously held faculty appointments at Harvard Medical School, before joining Columbia in 1985 as an HHMI Investigator.

“We congratulate Tom Jessell on this award,” said Robert Desimone, PhD, director of the McGovern Institute and chair of the selection committee. “He has been a pioneer in transforming developmental neuroscience from a descriptive to a mechanistic and molecular science.”

Dr. Jessell was selected for his research on the embryonic development of the nervous system. His primary interest is the development of the spinal cord, which because of its relative simplicity and evolutionary conservation offers an ideal system for understanding general principles of central nervous system (CNS) development.

Dr. Jessell’s work has revealed the molecular mechanisms responsible for establishing the spatial organization of the spinal cord. He has identified diffusible signaling molecules that act during early development to provide ‘positional information’ to embryonic cells, instructing them to differentiate in ways that are appropriate for their specific locations within the cord. Dr. Jessell has also studied the molecular mechanisms by which developing cells respond to these positional cues. This work has led to the identification of a transcriptional code, whereby a set of regulatory genes act in combination to specify the many different cell types that comprise the mature spinal cord.

The discovery of these genetic mechanisms has made it possible to identify and manipulate the activity of specific classes of neurons with great precision, and Dr. Jessell has used this approach to reveal the link between functional circuitry and motor behavior.

In addition to fundamental questions, Dr. Jessell’s work has important practical implications for the emerging field of regenerative medicine. There is great interest in stem cells as a renewable source of cells for transplantation therapy and drug discovery, but for this approach to succeed, stem cells must be converted to the desired cell type. Dr. Jessell’s work on transcriptional control of neural identity provides a roadmap for such efforts, and he has demonstrated its feasibility by converting embryonic stem cells into spinal motor neurons, the same cell types that degenerate in diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The implications of his research go well beyond motor neuron diseases; many disorders of the nervous system affect particular cell types, and the ability to convert stem cells to specific classes of neurons may eventually find wide applications in clinical neuroscience.

The McGovern Institute will award the Scolnick Prize to Dr. Jessell on Monday April 1, 2013.

Please click here to read more about the Scolnick Prize, and its selection of Dr. Jessell for its 2013 award.