Ashcroft named to receive Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical ScienceMar. 15, 2023, 8:10 AM
by Bill Snyder
Professor Dame Frances Ashcroft, a British physiologist known internationally for her work on insulin secretion, Type 2 diabetes and neonatal diabetes, is the recipient of the 2023 Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science, officials at Vanderbilt University Medical Center announced this week.
Ashcroft is professor of Physiology at the University of Oxford, a fellow of Trinity College Oxford, and the author of two popular books about science.
Her discoveries involving ion channels essential for insulin secretion have advanced the understanding of Type 2 diabetes and have enabled people with neonatal diabetes, a rare form of the disease that occurs within the first six months of life, to switch from insulin injections to oral drug therapy.
“Professor Ashcroft has had a remarkable career, having made important scientific contributions that advanced the field of diabetes research while serving as an inspirational mentor for generations of women scientists. She has also made significant contributions to the public’s understanding of science as an author of bestselling books and through numerous press interviews. I want to congratulate her on being chosen as this year’s Vanderbilt Prize winner,” said Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, President and Chief Executive Officer of VUMC and Dean of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
Established in 2006, the Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science recognizes women scientists with a stellar record of research accomplishments who also have made significant contributions to mentoring other women in science.
Prize winners receive an honorarium, present a special seminar and mentor a Vanderbilt Prize Scholar, a woman pursuing graduate studies in the biomedical sciences in the School of Medicine. Ashcroft’s award presentation and Vanderbilt Prize lecture will be held at VUMC at a later date.
“The efforts of Professor Ashcroft have helped improve the quality of life for many individuals with diabetes for years to come. With this award, Vanderbilt recognizes her ground-breaking, life-changing work and her encouragement of other women throughout their careers. She is an inspiration for a new generation of scientists.” said Jennifer Pietenpol, PhD, Chief Scientific and Strategy Officer for VUMC.
A fellow of the Royal Society of London (FRS) and the United Kingdom Academy of Medical Sciences (FMedSci), Ashcroft has trained more than 50 women scientists. She has given interviews and lectures about her work and her life as a woman scientist to public, patient and school groups.
“It is a very great honor to be awarded the Vanderbilt Prize, which recognizes the importance of empowering the next generation of women scientists,” Ashcroft said. “I look forward to meeting the Vanderbilt Prize Scholar.”
Ashcroft grew up in rural Dorset in southwest England, and earned her BA, PhD, and SciD at the University of Cambridge. Following postdoctoral training at the University of Leicester and UCLA, she established her research group at Oxford, focusing on the regulation of insulin secretion from the pancreatic beta cell.
In 1984 she and her colleagues published a seminal paper in the journal Nature that established how glucose stimulates insulin secretion: by closing a pore protein in the beta cell called the ATP-sensitive potassium (KATP) channel, through which electrically charged potassium ions flow.
Later, in collaboration with Professor Andrew Hattersley at the University of Exeter, Ashcroft and their colleagues showed that mutations in KATP channel genes prevent the channel from closing, thereby blocking insulin secretion. These mutations account for about half of the cases of neonatal diabetes.
The researchers also found that most of the mutant channels responded to sulfonylurea drugs, which are used to treat Type 2 diabetes, and which stimulate insulin release by directly binding to, and closing, KATP channels.
This discovery led to a sea change in the clinical care of patients with neonatal diabetes. Switching from insulin injections to oral medication improved the control of patients’ blood glucose levels and significantly improved their quality of life.
In nominating Ashcroft for the Vanderbilt Prize, Alvin C. Powers, MD, director of the Vanderbilt Diabetes Center and the Joe C. Davis Chair of Biomedical Sciences, wrote, “It is a rare accomplishment for a basic scientist to so effectively translate observations made in the laboratory into the clinic.
“Through her collaborations, Professor Ashcroft has done precisely this, impacting the lives of hundreds of individuals and revolutionizing our approach to neonatal diabetes,” Powers wrote.
Ashcroft has received several awards for her work including the Walter B. Cannon Award, the American Physiology Association’s highest honor, and, last year, the Banting Medal for Scientific Achievement from the American Diabetes Association.
She was one of five winners of the 2012 L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award, and in 2015 she was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE, the female equivalent of knighthood) “for services to medical science and the public understanding of science.”
For her popular science books, the best-seller “Life at the Extremes: The Science of Survival,” published in 2000, and “Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body,” published in 2012, Ashcroft was awarded Rockefeller University’s Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science in 2013.
Ashcroft is among 18 recipients of the Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science, two of whom subsequently won Nobel Prizes in Medicine and Chemistry. For a complete list of Vanderbilt Prize winners, go to the VUMC Office of Research website at www.vumc.org/oor and click on the “awards” tab.