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18 October 2023

On Wednesday 18 October, parasitologist James McKerrow and structural biologist Ohad Medalia were awarded honorary doctorates in special ceremonies at Charles University in recognition of their significant contributions to science and their long-term collaboration with the university. The event took place in the Great Hall of the Carolinum, the heart of the university.

“Professor James Hobson McKerrow has always demonstrated strong ties to Charles University. He has cooperated and continues to work with parasitologists and biochemists, primarily from the Faculty of Science at Charles University, for over 20 years. Today, we want to acknowledge his outstanding contributions to biomedical research, with a focus on the study of human pathogens, as well as his longstanding collaboration with Czech scientists," Professor Jiří Zima, the dean of the Faculty of Science at Charles University, said during the ceremonial presentation.

Professor James McKerrow is a prominent figure in the field of biomedical research, with a focus on the study of human pathogens. He is also the emeritus dean of the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of California, San Diego. His work focuses on the biochemistry and molecular biology of parasitic organisms. He is the founder and head of the Center for Discovery and Innovation in Parasitic Diseases initiative and contributes to the development of new drugs against medically significant parasitic organisms.

One example of his work is the development of an inhibitor of peptidases of the Chagas disease parasite, Trypanosoma cruzi. Some of these peptidase inhibitors also block the entry of coronaviruses and flaviviruses into cells, which proved highly relevant during the Covid pandemic, stimulating the expansion of this research direction with significant practical potential.

Professor McKerrow also founded and served as the executive director of the non-profit organisation Demeter Pharmaceuticals, which focuses on acquiring and screening the largest library of marine natural products in the United States.

The second recipient was Professor Ohad Medalia, the head of a research team at the University of Zurich's Department of Biochemistry. “Professor Medalia has a long-standing collaboration with Charles University and other Czech institutions, which is why we have decided to recognize his contributions to science, especially in structural cell biology, with an honorary doctorate in medical sciences, the highest honour that Charles University can bestow” Professor Martin Vokurka, the dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Charles University, said.

Professor Medalia is a renowned expert and pioneer in the field of cryo-electron microscopy. One of his most significant achievements is the three-dimensional mapping of protein assemblies inside intact cells. This work gained recognition as one of the breakthroughs of 2002 and became the foundation of a new field known as structural biology in situ.

Together with the late Nobel laureate Sir Aaron Klug, he established a cryo-electron microscopy laboratory and centre at Ben-Gurion University in Tel Aviv. At the University of Zurich, he produced the first highly detailed image of the structure of cell adhesion, a crucial cell structure for tissue formation. He also accurately described specific cellular processes that enable interactions with extracellular material. These interactions are crucial for healing and play an important role in various diseases, including tumour formation and metastasis, as well as inflammation and tissue repair.

After Professor Medalia and his team discovered the structure of molecular organization in cell cytoskeletons, they made further ground-breaking discoveries related to the organisation of the cell nucleus, allowing humanity to better understand how molecules or viruses can penetrate the cell nucleus. The work of Professor Medalia and his team significantly advanced our understanding of nuclear lamin organization and is now taught in textbooks worldwide.

Text: Pavla Hubálková

Photos: Vladimír Šigut

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