Alasdair Mcdowall

California Institute of Technology/Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Category of Humanitarian Benefit: Health and Medical, Knowledge Sharing

Short Biography/Background of the Nominee: Alasdair McDowall’s career started in the Pathology department of Moredun Institute, Edinburgh, (where Dolly the sheep, the first mammal was cloned) a UK veterinary research facility. He trained here in an animal pathology service and studied medical sciences specializing in histopathology. He set up and operated the early Siemens electron microscope in the department. A position in Pathology service at the Institute for Occupational Medicine, Edinburgh, brought his career into the human clinical arena of respiratory diseases where he continued his studies in medical sciences resulting in a Masters degree and Fellowship of the Institute of Medical Laboratory Science (FIMLS) UK.

Alasdair McDowall received his Doctorate from the University of Paris, Pierre et Marie Curie in 1984. His thesis topic was the “structural investigation at high resolution of untreated and fully hydrated cells and tissues for electron microscopy (cryoEM)”. This thesis was enhanced by the unique discovery in 1981 when Dubochet and McDowall reported the first vitrification at ambient pressures of water as seen in the electron microscope. In the years following this result, Dr. McDowall and colleagues at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), Heidelberg, pioneered seminal research in improved low temperature instrumentation and low dose observation techniques, which evolved into modern day molecular cryo-electron microscopy and the awarding of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Dubochet, Henderson and Frank.

Project Name and Description: “And they who bettered life on earth by their newly found mastery.” Nobel Medal inscription. The significance of Cryo-electron microscopy to medicine, health and the better being of mankind. “Cryo-electron microscopy the science method of the year 2016 changes all of our timelines on the future of health management. Researchers can now freeze biomolecules mid-movement and visualise processes they have never previously seen, which is decisive for both the basic understanding of life's chemistry and for the development of pharmaceuticals.” Nobel Prize announcement 2017. Dr Alasdair McDowall made the crucial experiment in the discovery of vitrification for Cryo EM. Vitrification is still the seminal first step used for preparing Cryo EM specimens for atomic imaging.

Humanitarian Benefit : Structural biologists and crystallographers now possess an elegant alternative for resolving fully hydrated macromolecular structures.
Knowing the structure of a molecule reveals important information about how it functions and can provide insight into potential drug targets for fighting disease. In addition to making unprecedented advances in areas from our basic understanding of cellular processes to the development of new vaccines. Cryo EM may now routinely provide images of the atomic architecture of membrane proteins, ion channels, amino acid side chains, the building blocks of life. Providing access for designing better drugs to block, activate, and target improved therapies.