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Prize recipient made proteins float in soap bubbles

The 2019 Novozymes Prize of DKK 3 million is being awarded to Carol Robinson for her scientific breakthroughs in use of mass spectrometry for proteome analysis. Her methods are widely used in the biotech industry and have contributed to identifying both new protein drugs and new drug targets.

Carol Robinson’s journey into the world of research was quite unusual.

Working on mass spectrometry as a lab technician at Pfizer in Kent, United Kingdom, she started studying chemistry through evening classes. She received a Higher National Certificate and then left Pfizer to take an MSc degree in chemistry before completing a PhD at the University of Cambridge.

She then took an eight-year career break to concentrate on her family and raise her three children.

Returning to science, she put her energy into analysing protein complexes and went on to become the first female professor of chemistry at the University of Oxford, one of the world’s finest universities.

Over the past two decades, Carol Robinson has been one of the main forces behind the development of mass spectrometry from a simple method for measuring the mass of small molecules to an advanced technique for measuring interactions between some of our body’s major macromolecules.

Her research has contributed to improving the understanding of membrane proteins, which play a part in many diseases and conditions, including cancer and schizophrenia.

A role model
Carol Robinson is receiving the 2019 Novozymes Prize of DKK 3 million for her unique efforts. The Prize is awarded to recognize outstanding research or technology contributions that benefit the development of biotechnological science for innovative solutions.

Carol Robinson says:

“I am extremely honoured to receive this prestigious award. I read the impressive list of previous recipients before me and am delighted to be joining this group.”

Jens Nielsen, Chair of the Novozymes Prize Committee, says:

“Carol Robinson almost single-handedly founded a subfield of mass spectrometry proteomics. She is a creative, innovative and fearless researcher and a role model for all scientists. Her unflinching pursuit of the controversial notion has now become a highly productive mainstream. Her methods have contributed to identifying both new protein drugs and new drug target interactions and has led to the development of innovative biotechnological solutions. In all respects, Carol Robinson is a worthy recipient of the 2019 Novozymes Prize.”

Soap bubbles as a vehicle
Amongst Carol Robinson’s many achievements is discovering how to characterize proteins in cell membranes. These are hugely important drug targets, but they are also incredibly hard to study because one part of the protein exists inside a hydrophobic membrane, whereas the parts inside and outside of the cell are hydrophilic.

“We got the idea to coat them in detergent and then send them into the mass spectrometer in a giant soap bubble. And miraculously, this bubble shield really protects them, so they are released into the gas phase intact in a folded state,” she explains.

In a series of landmark studies, Carol Robinson has unravelled the structure of the proteins synthesizing our cell’s energy currency, ATP, and later G protein–coupled membrane receptors, which are targets for many drugs.

Altogether, many of the techniques discovered by Carol Robinson are now used routinely for rapid antibody characterization in the pharmaceutical industry and have advanced the use of antibodies for treating people with cancer and other diseases.

“This is quite amazing. I have always hoped my findings would contribute to medicine,” says Carol Robinson.

Carol Robinson will officially receive the Novozymes Prize at a prize ceremony on 15 March in Bagsværd, Denmark.

About Carol Robinson

1982:Doctor of Philosophy, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
1980: Master of Science, University of Wales, United Kingdom
1979: Graduate of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Medway College of Technology, Kent, United Kingdom
1976: ONC and HNC in Chemistry, Canterbury College of Technology, Kent, United Kingdom

Latest academic appointments
2009–: Professorial Fellow, Exeter College, Oxford, United Kingdom
2009–: Dr Lee’s Professor of Chemistry, University of Oxford, United Kingdom
2006–2016: Royal Society Research Professorship
2003–2009: Senior Research Fellow, Churchill College, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
2001–2009: Professor of Mass Spectrometry, Department of Chemistry, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
1999–2001: Titular Professor, University of Oxford, United Kingdom

Accolades and distinctions
2018: President of the Royal Society of Chemistry
2017: Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences, United States
2013: Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire
2009: Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences
2004: Fellow of the Royal Society

Selected medals, awards and prizes
2018: Frank H. Field and Joe L. Franklin Award for Outstanding Achievement in Mass Spectrometry, American Chemical Society
2017: Sir Hans Krebs Lecture and Medal, Federation of European Biochemical Societies
2015: L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Award
2014: Kaj Linderstrøm-Lang Prize, Carlsberg Research Center
2011: Interdisciplinary Prize, Royal Society of Chemistry
2011: FEBS | EMBO Women in Science Award

About the Novozymes Prize

The Prize is awarded to recognize a pioneering research effort or a technological contribution that promotes the development of biotechnology science to generate innovative solutions.

The Prize is accompanied by DKK 3 million: DKK 2.5 million for the Prize recipient’s research and a personal award of DKK 0.5 million.

The Prize is awarded for a predominantly European contribution. Prize recipients must be employed at a public or non-profit research institution in a European country. They can have any nationality. The Novozymes Prize Committee awards the Prize on behalf of the Novo Nordisk Foundation based on nominations received. Anyone may nominate a candidate for the Prize.

Further information

Christian Mostrup Scheel, Senior Press Officer, phone: +45 3067 4805, [email protected]