In May, Joan A. Steitz, Ph.D., Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and a pioneer in the study of RNA, was named a winner of the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, America’s largest prize in medicine. Steitz shares the $500,000 award with Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Ph.D., the Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology and Physiology at the University of California, San Francisco. Steitz and Blackburn are the first two women scientists to win the prize.

Steitz, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, is best known for her discovery and characterization of small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs; prounouced “snurps”), intracellular complexes that play a key role in the splicing of pre-messenger RNA, the earliest product of DNA transcription. By excising non-coding regions from RNA and splicing together the resulting segments, snrnps help to create the messenger RNA (mRNA) templates for making proteins.

Besides illuminating this splicing process, Steitz’s research has served to clarify how splicing expands the coding potential of human chromosomes and has provided tools to advance the diagnosis and prognosis of rheumatic diseases.

Blackburn, who was a postdoctoral associate at Yale in the mid-1970s, discovered telomerase, an enzyme that repairs and stabilizes chromosomes. Telomerase has since been shown to play a crucial role in aging, the development of cancer and the biological effects of chronic stress.

“Many scientists believe that Dr. Steitz’s research may ultimately lead to breakthroughs in treating a variety of autoimmune diseases including lupus,” said James J. Barba, president and CEO of Albany Medical Center, who served as chair of the selection committee for the prize. “Dr. Steitz and Dr. Blackburn are among the greatest scientists of our generation. The potential impact of their research is extraordinary and we all owe them a great debt of gratitude.”

Now in its eighth year, the Albany Medical Center Prize is the second largest medical prize in the world outside of the Nobel Prize. The prize, which was endowed by a gift of $50 million from the Marty and Dorothy Silverman Foundation, is awarded to a “physician or scientist, or group, whose work has led to significant advances in the fields of health care and scientific research with demonstrated translational benefits applied to improved patient care.”

Steitz entered the Ph.D. program at Harvard University in 1963 in biochemistry and molecular biology, and she was the first female graduate student to work under James D. Watson, Ph.D., who had shared the Nobel Prize the previous year for his co-discovery of the structure of DNA. After completing postdoctoral work at the Medical Research Council Lab of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, she joined the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale in 1970.

Steitz is a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. She is also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.