Jonsson Cancer Researcher Appointed to Prestigious Pontifical Academy OF Sciences by Pope Benedict XVI

UCLA Health article

Dr. Edward De Robertis has been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to a lifetime term on the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a 406-year-old organization of 80 scientists who work to promote the progress of the mathematical, physical and natural sciences.

The academy is an international and interdisciplinary body that reports to the Pope. Candidates for membership must be nominated by a fellow scientist based on their body of work and must be approved by the academy members and, ultimately, the Pope.

"I'm absolutely delighted," said De Robertis, a professor of biological chemistry, the Norman Sprague Professor of Molecular Oncology and a Jonsson Cancer Center member. "It's a great honor and I think I will be able to do good for Science in the developing world."

Members participate in study groups and meetings organized by the academy to examine specific issues. Their deliberations and scientific papers are published by the academy. About 30 of the current members are Nobel Laureates. David Baltimore of Cal Tech, a Nobel Laureate, and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking also are members.

Born in 1947 in Boston, Mass., De Robertis was raised in Uruguay, where he received earned his medical degree in 1971 and was awarded the Gold Medal given to the top student. He then studied chemistry at the Leloir Institute in Buenos Aires, where he received a doctorate degree in 1974.

His did his postdoctoral studies with Sir John Gurdon, a distinguished developmental biologist at the Medical Research Council in the United Kingdom. In 1978, he became staff scientist at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. In 1980, De Robertis was made a professor of cell biology at the University of Basel in Switzerland, where he isolated the first development-controlling gene - called Hox - from vertebrates.

De Robertis came to UCLA in 1985 and was named to the Norman Sprague Chair in Molecular Oncology in the biological chemistry department and the Jonsson Cancer Center. He also is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator since 1994.

De Robertis served as president of the International Society of Developmental Biologists from 2002 to 2006.  He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the European Molecular Biology Organization and is a corresponding member of the Latin American Academy of Sciences. He also is active in Latin American affairs, and has served on the scientific board of the Pew Charitable Trusts Latin program for almost two decades. He recently received the Ross G. Harrison prize in developmental biology. 

De Robertis' research centers on the molecular mechanisms by which cells of the early vertebrate embryo differentiate into tissues such as brain, muscle and blood. He has cloned genes that code for secreted inhibitors of growth factors used by embryonic cells to communicate with each other. A perfect embryo must be formed time after time, and he has elucidated the genetic circuits that ensure this remarkable resilience. The proteins used to control cell differentiation have been conserved in all animals. This work has led to the realization that the molecular machinery for embryonic patterning is common to all animal embryos. This use of conserved gene networks during embryonic development has channeled the outcomes of Darwinian evolution by natural selection. 

His discoveries helped found the young scientific discipline of evolution and development, called Evo-Devo. His studies of embryonic cell differentiation have uncovered important connections between growth factor signaling pathways that control cell proliferation. De Robertis' work has aided in understanding how embryonic cells integrate multiple extracellular signals to achieve differentiation. These findings aid in researching cancer, which is a disease of cell differentiation.

De Robertis will travel to the Vatican to meet with the Pope in November 2010 and will receive his official insignia of academy membership.

For additional information on Edward De Robertis' research see:

UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center has more than 240 researchers and clinicians engaged in disease research, prevention, detection, control, treatment and education. One of the nation's largest comprehensive cancer centers, the Jonsson center is dedicated to promoting research and translating basic science into leading-edge clinical studies. In July 2009, the Jonsson Cancer Center was named among the top 12 cancer centers nationwide by U.S. News & World Report, a ranking it has held for 10 consecutive years. For more information on the Jonsson Cancer Center, visit our website at


Media Contact:
Kim Irwin
(310) 794-2262
[email protected]

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Media Contact

Kim Irwin
(310) 794-2262
[email protected]