Waclaw Szybalski - The Casimir Funk Natural Science Award 2003
The annual awards presentations, inaugurated in 1995 held in Williams Club at the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in New York City, honor distinguished scholars and scientists for their scholarly achievements with a $1000 award.
The awards are given in the fields of:
The Polish Institute of Arts & Sciences of America presented the annual awards during its “Sixth Awards Presentation and Reception” on December 6, 2003 , 3:00 p.m. at the Polish Consulate General in New York City.
The Natural Sciences Award of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences is named in honor of Casimir Funk, the discoverer of vitamins. It is my pleasure and honor to present this year’s award to Dr. Waclaw Szybalski, Professor of Oncology at the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research at the University of Wisconsin. This award recognizes Dr. Szybalski’s many accomplishments that have had a profound influence in many areas of biological research and medicine.
Dr Szybalski did not begin his professional career as a biologist.
He was, in fact, originally trained as a chemical engineer at the Lwow Polytechnic in Lwow, the city of his birth. He received his Ph,D, in 1949 in Chemistry at Gdansk Polytechnic in the Department of Chemistry, a department that he helped to rebuild after the war. Some of his first contributions were in the field of chemical engineering, where he devised a simple method that saved the city of Copenhagen water system from corrosion by bacteria.
While at Lwow Polytechnic Dr. Szybalski was influenced by the ideas of Professor Adolf Joszt and by pioneering yeast genetic studies of Professor Ojvind Winge’s from Copenhagen, studies that heralded an era of genetic engineering. Dr. Szybalski has written that at that moment he decided that the “new, revolutionary and mysterious ‘genetic engineering’ would become my endeavor for the rest of my life.” And indeed it did.
Dr Szybalski followed his interest in yeast genetics in Professor Winge’s laboratory in Copenhagen. During that time he was dismissed (most likely for political reasons) from Gdansk Polytechnic and this prompted his decision to emigrate to the United States in 1950. He accepted an appointment as staff member at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories in Long Island, one of the major centers of molecular biology research, he was on faculty at Rutgers, and since 1960 has held a post of Professor of Oncology at McArdle Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin.
From the time of his entry into molecular biology he has been a major player in development of this rapidly advancing frontier of science and he has contributed greatly to our clear understanding of microbial and human genetics at the molecular level. Today I can only mention a few of his many scientific accomplishments.
While at Cold Spring Harbor Dr Szybalski studied the genetics of antibiotic resistance that led him to propose the use of multi-drug therapy, a method successfully applied today in treatment of infectious diseases, including AIDS, as well as in chemotherapy.
He also made a major contribution to the development of human cell genetics and to immunology, by devising the HAT selection method. In 1962 the HAT method enabled him not only to isolate human cell mutants but also to carry out and to demonstrate the first genetic transformation of human cells. Kohler and Millstein used Dr. Szybalski’s HAT method for producing the first monoclonal antibodies in work that won them the Nobel Prize. The HAT selection method has by now become as Dr Szybalski described it, old hat and is used to this day in many laboratories, including my own, and I would like say thank you Dr Szybalski.
Dr Szybalski has made numerous contributions to studies of bacteriophages, the viruses that attack bacteria and that are used by molecular biologists to study genetic processes at the molecular level. He showed in collaboration with Dr. R. Litman that bacteriophage DNA synthesized in vitro was biologically active in that it could genetically transform. Regarding this 1962 work Dr. John Cairns said that biology should be divided into two periods, one before Litman and Szybalski, and one after.
The list of Dr. Szybalski’s accomplishments goes on and on. But let me mention that he is an authority on restriction enzymes, the tools that genetic engineers use for isolating genes. He has developed methods for mapping and sequencing DNA. He has developed and patented unique expression vectors, the pieces of DNA that are used for cloning and expression of genes in bacteria and other microorganisms. He has developed new methods for sequencing large fragments of chromosomes without intermediary cloning.
Dr Szybalski has published more than 400 publications and their number continues to grow and I am sure will continue to grow in the coming years.
Dr. Szybalski has also been an advocate for molecular biology research. He is the Founding Editor, and Editor-in-Chief, of the Journal Gene. He served as a founding member The NIH Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee and in addition was very active in “defending” the molecular genetics research from administrative and legalistic interference. He testified at the various committees of the US Congress, and several Foreign Parliaments, and he briefed Pope John Paul the 2nd at a private audience.
He has served on multiple Editorial Boards, is a member of many professional scientific societies and has received numerous honors and awards in the US, in Poland as well as in other countries – among these- four honorary doctorates from Polish Universities, the Jurzykowski Foundation Biology award and Gregor Mendel Gold Medal from the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. He has been elected a Foreign member of the Polish Academy of Sciences.
Dr Szybalski has collaborated with and served as a mentor to Polish scientists and this is also part of his legacy. Over the years, he has trained 30 students and postdoctoral fellows from the Gdansk Polytechnic, and from other Polish research centers
And last but not least Dr Szybalski enjoys the friendship and high esteem of his colleagues.
It is with great pleasure that I present to Dr Waclaw Szybalski on behalf of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences the Casimir Funk Natural Sciences Award.
After he joined the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories in 1951, he made major contributions to the genetics of antibiotic resistance that led him to propose multi-drug therapy that is successfully applied to this day.
His studies of human cell genetics resulted in isolation of many mutant lines, including HPRT-less mutant, designing the HAT selection, and applying it to the first DNA-mediated transformation of human HPRT-less cells (in 1962), followed by a proposal to use such transformation for future gene therapy, an idea that had to wait several years for its rebirth. Szybalski’s HAT selection permitted to develop the first monoclonal antibodies, honored by the Nobel prize.
The results of his work on bacteriophage lambda are perhaps among the best known. These include the separation of DNA strands, showing that both strands are transcribed and elucidation of transcription termination and anti-termination. He was the first to demonstrate that in vitro synthesized DNA has biological activity. John Cairns, when summarizing the 33th Cold Spring Harbor Symposium, said that biology should be divided into two periods: one before and one after the Litman & Szybalski (1963) experiment.
He is one of the leading scientists and an authority in various aspects of restriction enzymes and their applications in genomics. In his current research, Dr. Szybalski focuses on developing new methods for studying genomics. He has developed methods for mapping and sequencing of large fragments of chromosomes excised directly from the genome without intermediary cloning and sequence determination by “primer walking” with hexameric primers annealed to single-stranded templates. Within last two years he has acquired patents for several currently used and merchandized genomic and expression vectors based on his pBAC/oriV. Dr. Szybalski has over 400 scientific publications.
Dr. Szybalski has also been a very active advocate for the propagation of molecular biology research. He has been the Founder Editor, and for twenty years Editor-in-Chief, of the international journal Gene where he is still the Honorary Editor. He served as a founding member of RAC (The NIH Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee) and in addition was very active in “defending” the molecular genetics research from administrative and legalistic interference.
He has served on multiple Editorial Boards, is a member of many professional scientific societies and received numerous honors and awards in US as well as abroad.
Dr Szybalski has always had active contacts with science in Poland. He had collaborated with and helped polish scientists, those in Poland as well as those working abroad. Over the years, he has trained 25 students and postdocs from the University of Gdansk, in addition to those from other Polish Universities. He received Doctor Honoris Causa degrees (D.hc.) from four Polish universities, and was elected a Foreign Member of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Honorary Member of several Polish scientific societies.