Obituary: Anthony Pawson / Discovery of cell communication helped fight illness

Oct. 18, 1952 - Aug. 7, 2013

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

Anthony Pawson, a Canadian cell biologist whose pathbreaking insights about how cells communicate with one another resolved one of science's oldest mysteries and helped spur the development of a class of drugs that target cancer, diabetes and other diseases, died Aug. 7 in Toronto. He was 60.

Family members and colleagues declined to disclose the cause.

In his 1990 breakthrough, Mr. Pawson and his research team identified the specific protein interactions involved in cell signaling, the process by which cells tell one another what to do, when to do it and when to stop.

Scientists had long known that cells communicated, but no one knew the exact cellular mechanism involved until Mr. Pawson's research pinpointed it: a protein structure on the surface of every cell membrane. The structure, which he called the SH2 domain, serves as a landing pad for signaling proteins, which in turn set off a molecular chain reaction carrying information to the cell's nucleus.

SH2 domain proved to be the linchpin of the cell communications system, and the discovery basically confirmed Mr. Pawson's initial theory, that "when cells fail to communicate properly, disease happens," as he defined it in an interview.

Anthony Hunter, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the Salk Institute Cancer Center in San Diego, called the identification of the SH2 domain an "enormously influential idea" that introduced scientists to a fundamentally new principle about how cells work.

"It was a seminal finding," said Mr. Hunter, who collaborated with Mr. Pawson on several papers about cell communication.

Mr. Pawson's research opened a new field of study into the causes and effects of breakdowns in cellular communication. And studies based wholly or in part on his discoveries have produced new treatments for cancer, autoimmune diseases, diabetes and heart ailments, essentially by blocking or unraveling intercellular miscues.

Perhaps the best-known of these is Gleevec, a cancer drug that blocks the abnormal cell signal that causes a rare form of blood cancer called chronic myelogenous leukemia.

Mr. Pawson, who was frequently nominated and widely considered to be a shortlisted candidate for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, received many international awards for his work, including the 2008 Kyoto Prize in basic sciences and the Wolf Prize in Medicine in 2005. British-born, he was named to the Order of the Companions of Honour in 2007 by Queen Elizabeth II.

Mr. Pawson had worked at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute in Toronto since 1985, serving as director of research there from 2000 to 2005. At his death, colleagues said, he was continuing his cellular research, a pursuit he recently summarized as "understanding how life works."

In accepting the Kyoto Prize, Mr. Pawson said he had been unaware of the larger implications of his work when he first recognized the SH2 domain. (SH2 is short for the protein subunit known as the Src homology 2 domain.) "Had I known how important it was to be," he said, "I would have tried to think of a more memorable name."

Anthony James Pawson -- who was known as Tony to his friends and often published papers under the name Tony Pawson -- was born on Oct. 18, 1952, in Maidstone, England, the eldest of three children. His father, also known as Tony, a world-class cricket player, champion fly fisherman, and member of the British national soccer team at the 1948 Olympics, wrote about cricket for The London Observer. His mother, Hilarie, was a botanist and high school biology teacher who inspired his interest in science.

Mr. Pawson told friends that he had left Britain in part to escape the shadow of his father's enduring popularity with sports fans. Receiving an award in England recently, he told Mr. Hunter that a fellow scientist had approached him to shake his hand, saying, "I've always wanted to meet Tony Pawson."

"He meant Tony's father," Mr. Hunter said.

Mr. Pawson attended Winchester College for boys, graduated from Cambridge University with a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and earned his Ph.D. in molecular biology from King's College at London University in 1976. He was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of California at Berkeley in the late 1970s before moving to Canada in 1981 to become an assistant professor of microbiology at the University of British Columbia.

His father died last year at 91.

obituaries


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here