Five laureates find new ways of looking at old problems

On 29 March, five laureates will receive the L’Oréal-UNESCO award for Women in Science, which comes with prize-money of US$100,000. They will be joined by this year’s 15 international fellows and one special fellow in life sciences.

The focus of the laureates’ research is on medicine and, for one of them, on ‘resurrection plants’. As Günter Blobel, President of the jury and Nobel laureate in Medicine (1999), put it, ‘the laureates have all uncovered new ways of looking at old problems.’



Prof. Jill Farrant is the laureate for Africa and the Arab States. She holds the Research Chair in Plant Molecular Physiology at the University of Cape Town (South Africa) and has been recompensed for discovering how plants survive under dry conditions. Prof. Farrant is the world’s leading expert on resurrection plants, which ‘come back to life’ from a desiccated, seemingly dead state when given water. Her team’s ultimate goal is to develop drought-tolerant crops to nourish populations in arid, drought-prone climates, notably in Africa. Her research may also have medicinal applications.

Prof. Ingrid Scheffer is the laureate for Asia−Pacific. A paediatric neurologist at the University of Melbourne (Australia), she has been recompensed for identifying genes involved in certain forms of epilepsy, a brain disorder characterized by seizures and other symptoms that can be extremely disruptive to the lives of the 50 million sufferers. She has also described several new forms of epilepsy. She and her colleagues were the first to show that sodium channel genes caused febrile seizures, for instance, leading to a Belgian discovery that mutations to these genes caused Dravet Syndrome, a severe form of epilepsy. Her findings have already improved diagnosis and treatment for many patients and may lead to new therapies.

Prof. Frances Ashcroft is the laureate for Europe. A Fellow of Trinity College at the University of Oxford (UK), she has been recompensed for advancing our understanding of insulin secretion and neonatal diabetes. In 1984, she discovered a protein that acted as the link between blood−glucose levels and insulin secretion. As a result, people with a rare inherited form of diabetes can now simply take an existing drug in pill form, rather than enduring daily insulin injections. The drug has improved their blood glucose control and thereby reduced the risk of diabetic complications such as blindness and kidney disease; she is now studying why 25% of these patients also have neurological problems. Prof. Ashcroft is also exploring what goes wrong with insulin secretion in adult-onset (type 2) diabetes, which affects 336 million people worldwide.

Prof. Susana López is the laureate for Latin America. Based at the National University of Mexico, she has been recompensed for her studies on rotaviruses, which cause gastroentiritis and affect nearly every child on Earth under the age of five. Every year, 600 000 children in developing countries die from the resulting diarrhoea. The rotavirus was discovered in 1973 but there is still no antiviral drug to control the infection, antivirals being available so far only to prevent the replication of such viruses as HIV, herpes and influenza A and B. With her colleagues, Prof. Lopez has developed new diagnostic tests, isolated several new rotavirus strains and contributed to efforts to find a vaccine.

Prof. Bonnie Bassler is the laureate for North America. A Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and Squibb Professor at Princeton University (USA), she has been recompensed for showing that bacteria ‘talk’ to one another using chemicals as their words. About 1250 g of bacteria live in the gut and on the skin of every human body. Although bacteria live as single cells, Prof. Bassler was convinced that bacteria were ineffective on their own and had to work as co-ordinated ‘armies’ to keep us healthy (such as by digesting food) or make us sick (by causing disease). To act in unison, groups of bacteria had to communicate with one other. Her startling discoveries may someday lead to new antibiotics that interfere with bacterial conversations as well as many other applications, such as infection-resistant surgical implants.

In 2011, UNESCO celebrated the International Year of Chemistry, which marked the cententary of the award of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry to Marie Curie The Special Fellowship “in the footsteps of Marie Curie” was created the same year by UNESCO and the L’Oréal Foundation. The Special Fellowship is awarded each year to a former international fellow who, through her outstanding career, incarnates the future of science. See the map for the full list of this year’s 16 fellows.

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