Two Nobel Winners Honor Joseph Larner

Two Nobel Prize Winners in Medicine Return to UVA to Honor Mentor Professor Emeritus Joseph Larner

Nobel Laureates Alfred Gilman, MD, PhD, and Ferid Murad, MD, PhD, were among hundreds of distinguished scientists, faculty, students, friends and family to come together recently at the UVA Health System in celebration of UVA Professor Emeritus Joseph Larner’s 90th birthday. A pioneer in the field of pharmacology, Larner’s birthday was marked with a special Symposium in his honor, “Signaling and Disease in the 21st Century,” held in the Jordan Hall Conference Center April 14-15, 2011.

One of several world-renowned presenters, 1994 Nobel Prize winner Alfred Gilman shared with the audience his memories as a burgeoning scientist in Larner’s laboratory – one of the first to occupy the then brand-new Jordan Hall.  In 1971, Larner recruited Gilman as a junior faculty member in the UVA Department of Pharmacology.

“Joe was a superb mentor, a proper task master who always expected the best science from those of us who had the privilege to work with and learn from him,” said Gilman, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries regarding G-proteins.

As impressive as the collective scientific minds in the standing-room-only auditorium were the professional and personal bonds many of the presenting scientists have formed over the years as they all made discoveries that would shape the future of medicinal science.

“Most scientists don’t get the opportunity to witness how their work makes an impact on patients,” said Murad, 1998 Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine.  “I feel so fortunate that I’ve had that opportunity in my lifetime. And I’m equally lucky to have worked with great scientists like Joe Larner.” Murad was UVA Professor of Pharmacology from 1970 – 1981. His prize-winning research demonstrated that nitroglycerin and other similar heart drugs increase the diameter of blood vessels.

In his introduction of Murad, James Larner, MD, Joseph’s son who is Chairman of Radiation Oncology in the UVA School of Medicine, said he worked in Murad’s laboratory as a high school student. Murad called James and Larner’s other two sons, “part of my family.”

As Joseph Larner, MD, PhD, began his presentation near the close of the Symposium, he said with his characteristic humor, “After all of these accolades, I fear I may have a John Boehner moment.”

But what became transparent during the two-day Symposium was the mark that Joseph Larner made on the fields of pharmacology and biochemistry. As Chairman of the UVA Department of Pharmacology from 1969 – 1990 and founder of the UVA Diabetes Center for research in 1974, he served as a mentor to some of the world’s brightest scientific minds – researchers who have accelerated how we treat heart disease and type 2 diabetes among many other conditions.

In his own research, which has spanned decades and continues on into his 90s, Larner has discovered a natural carbohydrate, called D-chiro-Inositol-Galectosomine, or INS2, that helps lower blood sugar. His pivotal study, featured on the cover of the Oct. 4, 2005 issue of the journal Biochemistry, has led to the ongoing development of some of the most promising new drugs to treat type 2 diabetes. Larner received the Banting Medal, the highest research honor given by the American Diabetes Association, in 1987 and was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 1988.

The Symposium honoring Larner was sponsored by the John Anderson Memorial Lecture Fund, the UVA Cancer Center, the Cardiovascular Research Center, the Bierne Carter Immunology Center and the UVA Departments of Pharmacology, Biochemistry & Molecular Genetics, Microbiology, Neuroscience, and Molecular Physiology & Biological Physics.

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