Gustafsson's award-winning research focuses on nuclear receptors, a type of molecule found inside the cell nucleus. Their task is to receive sex hormones, stress hormones, Vitamin D and other transmitter substances that must enter the cell nucleus to function.
"Since this prize is maybe the most prestigious Nordic medical prize, it is a great honor for me to receive it and an enormous encouragement for our research efforts in the field of nuclear receptors," Gustafsson said.
One of the Fernström prizewinner's most important research findings is a previously unknown receptor for estrogen, which his research group discovered in the mid-1990s. The estrogen receptor already known at the time came to be referred to as ER-alpha (ER = estrogen receptor), and the new receptor as ER-beta.
The two receptors work in rather different ways. ER-alpha mainly focuses on regulating fertility and reproduction, while ER-beta is found not only in the reproductive organs, but also in the brain, lungs, immune system and other organs.
ER-alpha also has an activating function and speeds up various processes in the body, such as cell division. This is why estrogen therapy after menopause increases the risk of breast cancer. ER-beta has the opposite effect; it suppresses cell division and slows various processes in the body.
Several companies are currently trying to develop medications based on ER-beta.
"The company that has come the farthest is now conducting patient trials with a drug for benign prostatic hyperplasia. Researchers also want to test the substance for the treatment of prostate cancer. There are even plans to use ER-beta-based drugs to treat depression and menopausal symptoms," said Gustafsson.
During his research career he has published more than 1,100 articles and supervised almost 100 doctoral students. He has also had many assignments for international magazines, as well as for the Swedish Medical Research Council, the Swedish Cancer Society and the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research. Currently he holds a 20-percent position at the Karolinska Institutet (KI) in Sweden and devotes much of his time to the new "Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling" at the University of Houston. Gustafsson hopes that this operation will create a scientific bridge between Houston and KI.
Shipowner Erik K. Fernström's Foundation is based at the Faculty of Medicine at Lund University. Every year the Foundation awards the Nordic prize, as well as local prizes to promising young researchers at Sweden's six faculties of medicine.
The prize committee motivates its choice of the winner of the Nordic prize as follows: "Professor Jan-Åke Gustafsson receives the prize for his discoveries of nuclear receptors and his groundbreaking research on their significance in several common diseases."
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