Thomas Petes, Minnie Geller professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at the Duke University Medical Center, received the Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal for his achievements in the field of genetics.
Conferred annually by the Genetics Society of America, the award recognizes an individual for their lifetime contribution to the field of genetics. Petes received the award for using yeast as a model to understand chromosomal abnormalities and genetic instability in cancer cells. His research has given new insight into how normal cells become cancerous.
“Dr. Petes’ rigorous work over the years in a model organism, in this case, yeast, is a wonderful example of how studies of model organisms can inform us about mechanisms of human disease, in this case, cancer,” Dr. Michael Kastan, executive director of the Duke Cancer Institute and William W. Shingleton professor of pharmacology and cancer biology, said in a press release.
Petes’ research uncovered similarities between the structure and function of proteins responsible for DNA repair and protection of the chromosomes’ tips in both yeast and human cells. The parallels between proteins found in yeast and human cells allowed the scientists to understand how issues with these proteins play a role in creating cancerous cells.
When Petes and his colleagues were looking at yeast cells, for example, they saw that cells lacking particular enzymes responsible for DNA mismatch repair demonstrate similar genetic instability to that in human colon cancer cells. The findings suggest that these repair defects play an important role in the disease process.
Petes has applied these findings to patients with hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer—an inherited, high-risk colon cancer where 80 percent of patients develop intestinal tumors. His research predicted that patients might have mismatch repair mutations.
His research also gave greater insight to patients with ataxia telangiectasia—an inherited, neurodegenerative disease that causes severe disability. Petes’ lab discovered a gene in yeast responsible for the maintenance of the tips of chromosomes that is closely related to the human gene that is mutated in patients with this disorder. People with ataxia telangiectasia are cancer-prone.
“[Petes’ research] is a powerful example of how the most fundamental, basic science research can have tremendous importance for understanding and treating human diseases,” said Dr. Nancy Andrews, dean of the Duke University School of Medicine, in a press release.
Petes served as president of the Genetics Society of America in 2002 and was chair of the department of molecular genetics and microbiology at Duke from 2004 to 2009.