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david allis
C. David Allis, PhD

PHILADELPHIA— The Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania has awarded C. David Allis, PhD, an American molecular biologist, with the inaugural Elaine Redding Brinster Prize in Science or Medicine. Allis’ research helped spark the field of epigenetics, which is the study of how a person’s behavior and environment can change the way their genes operate. Epigenetics now yield useful insights on everything from what may cause seizures to how bodies age and the way chronic diseases develop and progress.

"We are thrilled to award this honor for the first time to Dr. Allis, whose foundational biochemical discoveries have impacted so many aspects of biology and medicine,” said Ken Zaret, PhD, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine and the Joseph Leidy Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology. "It's a timely way to highlight the importance of science to society."

The prize, supported by an endowment from the children of Elaine Redding Brinster, will be awarded annually to a researcher whose singular discovery has made a unique impact on biomedicine. Each winner will receive $100,000, a commemorative medal, and an invitation to present a ceremonial lecture to the University of Pennsylvania campus community.

Allis will accept the prize March 16, 2022, as part of the daylong Ralph L. Brinster Symposium.

"I am deeply honored and humbled to be receiving this inaugural prize from this distinguished institute at such a prestigious university,” said Allis, the Joy and Jack Fishman Professor and head of the Laboratory of Chromatin Biology and Epigenetics at the Rockefeller University in New York City. “The science being done there is world-class by many renowned investigators, which makes receiving this prize so special."

In 1996, while a professor at the University of Rochester, Allis and his team isolated a protein within a single-celled organism that directly reacted with histones, the protein component of chromosomes that packages DNA in the “brain” of the cell, the nucleus. Allis and others then later demonstrated that the enzyme-related activity of this protein – which was a protein similar to the known yeast gene regulator GCN5 – is necessary for gene activation. Together, these studies demonstrated that the biochemical modification of histone proteins regulates gene activity, creating a foundation for the field of epigenetics.

Since then, Allis has continued to explore how histone modifications influence gene expression and contribute to health and disease. Recently, his lab has identified mutations known as "oncohistones," which have now been identified in a range of cancer types, further underscoring the importance of histone modification.

Previously, Allis won several prestigious awards, including the Dickson Prize, the Breakthrough Prize, and the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research. Allis is a member of the U.S. National Academies of Science and Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

The Penn Institute for Regenerative Medicine is dedicated to researching cells and tissues with an eye toward turning the knowledge gained into new diagnostic and therapeutic techniques and tools. A member of the International Society for Stem Cell Research’s (ISSCR) Circle of Stem Cell Institute and Center Directors, the institute features faculty from five schools across the University of Pennsylvania and includes representation from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the Wistar Institute.

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