The 2017 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award honors a scientist who discovered the nutrient-activated TOR proteins and their central role in the metabolic control of cell growth. By showing that the TOR system adjusts cell size in response to the availability of raw materials, Dr. Michael N. Hall (photo) (Biozentrum, University of Basel, Switzerland) revealed an unanticipated linchpin of normal cell physiology. TOR balances constructive and destructive activities to match accumulation of cell mass with nutrient supply and other growth signals, such as hormones. Disruption of the TOR network contributes to numerous human illnesses, including diabetes and cancer, and has been implicated in a wide range of other age-related disorders. The story began in the late 1980s, when many researchers were studying the tightly choreographed process by which cells divide. Although scientists recognized that a cell must increase in content and size as part of this process, they were not focused on that aspect. Growth was thought to be spontaneous, so if raw materials such as amino acids and fatty acids were present, the thinking went, cells would manufacture macromolecules such as proteins and lipids. In this scenario, a growth regulator was unnecessary.
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