MBL Trustee Timothy Springer Receives Lasker Basic Medical Research Award
Timothy A. Springer, a member of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) Board of Trustees, has received one of the most prestigious prizes for biomedical research, the 2022 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award.
Springer, the Latham Family Professor at Boston Children's Hospital/Harvard Medical School, has served on the MBL Board of Trustees since 2020 and has conducted research in the MBL Whitman Center, lectured in the Physiology course, and served on the MBL Council.
Springer received the Lasker Basic Medical Research Award in conjunction with Richard O. Hynes (MIT) and Erkki Ruoslahti (Sanford Burnham Prebys) for original discoveries concerning the integrins – transmembrane proteins that lie partially inside the cell, partially outside, and connect the cell’s internal skeleton to its external environment or to other cells.
Since Hynes, Ruoslahti, and Springer independently discovered the integrins in the 1980s, these dynamic cell adhesion proteins have been shown to enable an astounding array of fundamental processes, including cell growth, migration, survival, and proliferation. Since 1987, more than 80,500 integrin-related publications have appeared in the literature.
Accordingly, integrin malfunction has been identified as a factor in many diseases. Five FDA-approved, integrin-targeting drugs are currently available, including treatments for ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and eye disease, with more in development.
A prolific biochemist, biotech entrepreneur, and investor, Springer is firmly dedicated to basic research.
“Out of the deep biology my colleagues and I have discovered, new drugs to treat patients have been approved and new companies have been founded,” he told the Lasker Foundation. “Although I have accepted the challenges of entrepreneurship and philanthropy, I am first and foremost a scientist, and discovery is still what I love most.”
Springer’s Research at the MBL
It was basic research that first drew Springer to the MBL. In 2012, a postdoctoral fellow in Springer’s lab, Pontus Nordenfelt, took the MBL Physiology course, then co-directed by Clare Waterman of the National Institutes of Health. Waterman tried an experiment in the course to visualize cell migration using a novel microscope developed at MBL that allows one to see how molecules are spatially aligned, including on the cell surface.
Springer and Waterman then began discussing whether the microscope, the TIRF PolScope, could help in Springer’s research. He had already shown that integrins unfurl, like an arm stretching out, when they’re activated to attach the cell to its external environment. But what causes the integrins to unfurl?
Springer and Waterman thought it might be the pull of dynamic filaments inside the cell (the actin cytoskeleton), which bind to the integrins. Waterman applied for and received a Lillie Award from the University of Chicago/MBL to pursue this question with Springer, microscopists Tomomi Tani, Rudolf Oldenbourg, and Shalin Mehta, and other collaborators in the MBL Whitman Center from 2014—2016.
Their results were exciting. “We’ve found, no doubt, that the integrins are aligned [by the forces of the actin cytoskeleton],” Springer said. “It’s quite remarkable that you can [measure] that with a microscope. I don’t know of any other examples where people have actually measured the orientation of a cell surface molecule.”
“This is really beautiful basic research,” Springer said. “While we knew a lot about highly purified integrins in solution, this research gives us specific information about their activation state in living cells.”
“Tim’s career-long pursuit of scientific discovery makes him an outstanding role model for the entire MBL scientific community, and we are proud to have him as a member of the MBL Board,” said MBL Director Nipam Patel. “His substantial contributions to the field of cell biology and its applications to disease treatment are a testament to the power of basic and biomedical science.”
The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) is dedicated to scientific discovery – exploring fundamental biology, understanding marine biodiversity and the environment, and informing the human condition through research and education. Founded in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1888, the MBL is a private, nonprofit institution and an affiliate of the University of Chicago.