Salk scientist wins $250,000 Asan Award in basic medicine

Ronald Evans
Ronald Evans, director of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies’ Gene Expression Laboratory, won the 2021 Asan Award in basic medicine.

For La Jolla resident Ronald Evans, director of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies’ Gene Expression Laboratory, cellular research is a bit like a treasure hunt. Every discovery, he says, is like picking the lock to a door that opens to a room full of jewels.

And for Evans and his lab staff, most rooms have other doors that could lead to other rooms to explore. Early in his scientific career, one of those “rooms” contained a discovery that would launch the field of molecular endocrinology (the molecular processes of hormones).

For that, Evans has been awarded the 2021 Asan Award in basic medicine by the Korea-based Asan Foundation. The award, which totals $250,000, recognizes “medical scientists who have achieved remarkable accomplishments in the fields of basic and clinical medicine to promote human health,” according to the foundation.

“We are thrilled that the Asan Foundation is recognizing Ron’s considerable contributions to medical science,” said Salk President Rusty Gage. “His work has provided invaluable insights into numerous physiological processes, enabling the development of novel treatments for diabetes, cancer and other metabolic diseases.”

The Asan Foundation supports medical research as well as social and medical welfare programs.

Evans, who also is Salk’s March of Dimes chair in molecular and developmental biology, is the first international recipient of the Asan Award in basic medicine.

“It wasn’t my goal to launch a field, but that’s what happened,” Evans said with a laugh.

He said his lab is known for discovering the “blueprint” of nuclear hormone receptors. “Most people know of hormones such as cortisone, which is anti-inflammatory, and our body naturally produces from different glands,” he said. “These interact with a target inside the cell called the receptor. What’s unique about these sensors is they are in the nucleus, so for the hormone to get to the receptor, it needs to go into a cell and into the nucleus. When that happens, the receptor activates a network of genes. That’s how these hormones work in the body.”

Though the study of hormones began almost 100 years ago, Evans’ lab discovered the receptors and how they interact with the cells in the 1980s.

“With that blueprint, I was very happy because we cracked a very hard problem,” he said. “Buried in the blueprint was a signature of amino acids. That gave us the hint that this might be a hook to find other receptors.

“The signature unlocked a door, and when we went into that door, there was a room full of receptors. That predicted the existence of many new physiological pathways that were not known to exist.”

At that point, seven hormonal systems had been discovered. Evans’ lab discovered 40 more.

“It’s all about getting through the next door. And as you go through these doors, you get into these chambers with all these jewels,” he said. “You can get lost in it. You can either stay with the one you have or you try to look at the whole thing. … We were good at picking the lock to open the next door. We were able to move through this maze of potential receptors and explore the complexity and evolutionary relationships.”

With that discovery came knowing what to do with it. He had read scientific papers that simply announced a discovery, but he said his focus was asking the right questions at the right time, using the right techniques, and knowing how to approach the problem and answer the question being raised.

“There is a lot baked into the way in which science unfolds. You can ask a question 100 different ways and get 100 different answers,” he said. “If you give 10 people the same data and tell them to write it up, they’ll write up 10 different stories. Really, it’s all about how you see it and put it together. It’s not just getting the data, it’s what the data is trying to tell you. You have to think hard about that.”

The bigger question soon became how the medical community could use the discovery to address diseases and make new drugs.

By establishing unique connections between genes and hormone activity, Evans’ work has led to the invention of novel classes of drugs that treat diseases by targeting genes.

“It went from ‘We didn’t know this existed’ to the creation of drugs that are treating people’s diseases,” he said. “We went from ‘What is the molecular on/off switch for a gene?’ [hormones connecting to receptors] to drugs that are there to treat everything from migraines to heart disease and cancer. These things are going to be studied for decades to come.” ◆