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Oxford Physiology Professor Earns Walter B. Cannon Award

‘Life at the Extremes’ author Frances M. Ashcroft delivers ‘Physiology in Perspective’ lecture

Washington – The subject of ion channels might seem abstract, but these microscopic gates into individual cells can account for some astonishing phenomena: goats that fall flat on the ground when startled; pigs that shiver themselves to death; horses that suffer bouts of paralysis. Each of these conditions was traced to a malfunctioning ion channel.

Oxford University Physiology Professor Frances M. Ashcroft, working with Exeter University Professor Andrew Hattersley, discovered another malady associated with ion channel malfunction, a rare genetic form of diabetes that strikes children and is known as permanent neonatal diabetes mellitus.

Their discovery produced dramatic changes in the lives of children born with the disease. As a result of their research, these children have been able to switch from daily insulin injections to a daily pill, transforming both their lives and that of their parents.

Physiology in perspective at 120th Annual Meeting in Washington

The American Physiological Society (APS) will present its highest award, the Walter B. Cannon Award, to Dr. Ashcroft. She will be the 25th recipient of the Cannon Award, which goes to an outstanding scientist, and will deliver the Walter B. Cannon Physiology in Perspective lecture at 5:45 p.m., Saturday, April 28 in Ballroom B of the Washington Convention Center. The lecture is part of the 120th annual meeting of the APS, which takes place as part of Experimental Biology 2007.

Dr. Ashcroft, a fellow of the Royal Society of London, is also the author of “Life at the Extremes: The Science of Survival,” a best-selling book written for a general audience, that examines the science behind a variety of extreme activities, including mountain climbing and deep sea diving. She has written two textbooks: “Insulin: Molecular Biology to Pathology” and “Ion Channels and Disease.” She has also published more than 200 research articles in scholarly journals.

“Prize pores”

Ion channels -- microscopic protein pores in the cell membrane that control which ions enter and leave -- are essential for the normal functioning of all cells. The ability to see, hear, think, speak, and move arms and legs is due to the activity of ion channels in the nerve cells of the brain and in the muscle cells of the limbs. When these channels malfunction, a variety of diseases can result, including diabetes, cystic fibrosis, epilepsy and sudden cardiac death.

Diabetes is a serious metabolic disease that is reaching epidemic proportions in Western societies and is predicted to affect 300 million people worldwide by 2025. The disease occurs when the body does not make enough insulin for its needs. Dr. Ashcroft's research has provided insights into how insulin is normally secreted by the pancreas and what goes wrong with this process in diabetes.

Research on ion channels, which Dr. Ashcroft dubs “prize pores,” is playing a major role in APS-sponsored sessions at Experimental Biology this year. At 5:45 p.m., Sunday, April 29, James D. Stockand of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio will expand on the theme when he gives the Henry Pickering Bowditch Award lecture “New insight into the regulation of ENaC by small G proteins and phosphatidylinositides.” The Bowditch Award, the Society’s second highest, is awarded to a scientist younger than 42 years whose accomplishments are both original and outstanding.

Physiology is the study of how molecules, cells, tissues and organs function in health and disease. Established in 1887, the American Physiological Society (APS) was the first U.S. society in the biomedical sciences field. The Society represents more than 10,500 members and publishes 15 peer-reviewed journals with a worldwide readership.