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MIT Honors Luria, Magasanik, Sharp

Three MIT scientists whose pioneering contributions have redefined the field of molecular biology have been honored by the Institute. At a May 11 Faculty Club luncheon, MIT announced that it has:

  • Established an endowed professorship in the name of the late Nobel laureate and Institute Professor Salvador E. Luria.
  • Selected Professor Phillip A. Sharp to be the first holder of the Luria Chair.
  • Named a seminar room in the new biology building, which is under construction, in honor of Boris Magasanik, the Jacques Monod Professor of Microbiology, Emeritus, and his late wife Adele Magasanik.

MIT Provost Mark S. Wrighton, master of ceremonies at the lunch, saluted the Department of Biology, the academic home of the professors being honored.

Professor Wrighton also praised the work of MIT's Technology Licensing Office, led by John T. Preston, director, and Lita Nelsen, associate director, for its skill in assisting at the birth of spin-off companies which carry MIT's scientific and technological developments to society through the marketplace.

Professor Wrighton pointed out that funding for the establishment of the Luria Professorship and the Magasanik Seminar Room derives from the Institute's links to two technology-based companies with MIT antecedents. The companies are ImmuLogic Pharmaceutical Corporation and Repligen Corporation, both of Cambridge.

ImmuLogic, an MIT spin-off through the Technology Licensing Office, is based on a patent issued to Professor Malcolm L. Gefter of the Department of Biology. The significant income from that relationship has been used to fund the Luria Chair. In addition, Repligen, a faculty-start-up whose founders include Professors Alexander Rich and Paul R. Schimmel of the Department of Biology, have provided a gift of $200,000 for the chair.

Among those attending the lunch was Repligen's chief executive officer, Sandford D. Smith, and Walter Herlihy, senior vice president, research and development. ImmuLogic was represented by Dr. Thomas J. Briner.

Professor J. David Litster, vice president and dean of research, said Repligen and ImmuLogic are among some 20 startups since 1986 "in which the Technology Licensing Office has played a key role."

Professor Robert J. Birgeneau, dean of the School of Science, announced the selection of Professor Sharp as the first holder of the Luria Professorship and traced the development of the Department of Biology, whose ranks have included three other Nobel laureates: Professor Susumu Tonegawa and Professor Har Gobind Khorana, presently members of the faculty, and Dr. David Baltimore, former director of the Whitehead Institute of Biomedical Research. Dr. Baltimore, who will return to MIT in 1994, also attended the lunch.

MIT President Charles M. Vest announced the establishment of the Luria Professorship and traced the remarkable career of a man known as much for his love of freedom as for his scientific discoveries.

Attending the lunch was Professor Luria's widow, the former Zella Hurwitz, professor of psychology at Tufts University.

Professor Luria, who died in February 1991, was the first to discover mutations in viruses which permit them to overcome immunological barriers. His work, and those of two others with whom he shared the 1969 Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology, is regarded as being primarily responsible for modern advances in the control of viral diseases and for advances in molecular biology. Professor Luria was the first director of the MIT Center for Cancer Research.

Professor Sharp, who worked closely with Professor Luria, succeeded him in 1985 as director of the Center for Cancer Research. Professor Sharp, now head of the Department of Biology, is a key figure for one of the major discoveries in modern genetics-that genes in cells containing a nucleus are fundamentally unlike those in unnucleated single-cell bacteria. Since that discovery in the 1970s, Professor Sharp and others have found that nucleated cells selectively remove great loops of surplus sequences and splice the remaining sequences which are then translated into the proteins that are the building blocks of living things.

Professor Magasanik, a member of the MIT faculty since 1960, was recognized as a leader in the development of the MIT Department of Biology. In more than four decades of carefully conceived and delicately executed cellular research, his work helped illuminate the complex genetic and biochemical mechanisms that control cell life and function. He has demonstrated the complex interconversion of various cellular biochemical constituents such as nucleotides and amino acids.

The Boris and Adele Magasanik Seminar Room will be formally dedicated when the new biology building is completed in late 1993, Professor Wrighton said.


A version of this article appeared in the May 20, 1992 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 36, Number 31).

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