$3 million Breakthrough Prize goes to La Jolla scientist fighting heart, brain disorders
Jeff Kelly of Scripps Research is doing promising work in fighting amyloid plaques.
A Scripps Research biochemist whose work points to possible ways of preventing major diseases of the heart and nervous system has been awarded a $3 million Breakthrough Prize — the largest financial award in science.
Jeffrey Kelly is one of nine people who received a Breakthrough Prize on Thursday, Sept. 9, for doing everything from creating better ways to sequence DNA to developing more precise tests for the fundamental laws of nature.
The $3 million prizes were introduced 10 years ago to honor comparatively recent advances in physics, science and math and are steadily rising in prestige internationally.
Kelly, 62, earned the prize for his research on proteins, the “building blocks of life.”
He has mainly focused on transthyretin, which like other proteins folds into origami-like shapes while it is developing. The protein sometimes doesn’t turn into the right shape or hold on to its folds. This produces clumps that can destroy cells and tissues, killing people.
The clumping is best known for creating the amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease. But such plaques have been implicated in about 40 diseases of the nervous system and the heart.
Kelly developed a molecule that stabilizes transthyretin. He then helped turn the molecule into tafamidis, a drug that slows the progression of disease, Scripps Research says. His research also showed that such clumping plays a larger role in neurodegeneration than scientists once thought.
The breakthrough “is pretty simple in a way, but it has taken a long time for us to pull this off such that you have a very safe and effective molecule to slow the progression of neurodegenerative diseases,” Kelly told the Union-Tribune.
In some cases, the entire $3 million Breakthrough Prize goes to one recipient for work in a specific area. In other cases, the money is split among more than one person who worked on the same breakthrough. Kelly is receiving the full $3 million.
“I thought I was being pranked” when he heard about the award, Kelly said. “But the source was pretty credible, so that quickly changed to, ‘Oh my God.’
“Certainly some of (the money) will go to philanthropy because it’s a really important part of my life — making scientific careers accessible to people.”
Kelly becomes the latest in a long line of Scripps Research scientists who’ve earned major awards. The La Jolla-based institute has been home to four Nobel Prize winners. And the journal Nature ranked Scripps as the most innovative private life science institute in the world in 2017.
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