September 28, 1999
Volume 46
Number 5

Another Lasker Prize at PennMed: Dr. Armstrong of Physiology

Dr. Clay M. Armstrong, professor of physiology at the School of Medicine since 1975, will share the 1999 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award from the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation--the second year in a row that PennMed faculty* have been among the winners in a program often called a Nobel Prize "predictor" because of the high number of Lasker Prize winners (61 at last count) who have gone on to Stockholm.**

Dr. Armstrong will receive the award at a luncheon in New York City on October 1. Another of the six scholars to be honored then is Dr. Seymour S. Kety, C '36, M'40, who taught at Penn from 1943-61--initially in pharmacology, but later in clinical psychology, before moving to Harvard where he is now professor emeritus of neuroscience. Dr. Kety's Lasker Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science recognizes lifetime achievements, including discoveries in blood flow and in genetics, and "visionary leadership in mental health that ushered psychiatry into the molecular era."

Dr. Armstrong, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, is cited along with the University of Washington's Dr. Bertil Hille and Rockefeller University's Dr. Roderick MacKinnon, for "elucidating the functional and structural architecture of ion channel proteins, which govern the electrical potential of membranes throughout nature, thereby generating nerve impulses, and controlling muscle contraction, cardiac rhythm, and hormone secretion."

Dr. Armstrong's work unveiled the mechanisms governing the behavior of ion channels, a PennMed biographical sketch adds. "Since the 19th century, scientists have known that nerve impulses were transmitted electrically. Exactly how they were propagated throughout the body, however, was still mysterious. During approximately the same era, engineers working on the first trans-Atlantic cables found that electronic signals would fade and be lost without the use of booster stations along the way. What Armstrong discovered years later was precisely how ion channels function as the nervous system's booster stations, responsible for receiving and reproducing signals as they travel along nerve fibers."

Many important drugs act by blocking ion channels--e.g., local anaesthetics and calcium channel blockers, which are used to restore the normal rhythms of the heart--and Dr. Armstrong's research has contributed to the understanding of the mechanisms by which drugs interact with ion channels.

In the 1970s he gained fundamental insights into the ion-channel structures responsible for sensing an incoming electrical signal, for opening the gate that controls ion passage, and for closing it. He then proposed the existence of a positively charged helix for detecting the "gating" of the channel, and he first succeeded (with Francisco Bezanilla, now professor of physiology at UCLA) in measuring the current caused by the movement of that charged helix. He also postulated a 'ball and chain' mechanism for inactivation of channels, in which a globular peptide attached to an amino acid chain can block the channel by becoming lodged in its inner mouth. In all of these areas, Dr. Armstrong is credited with anticipating recent structural insights gained from molecular biology and X-ray crystallography.

Dr. Armstrong took his B.A. with honors in 1956 from Rice University and his M.D. in 1960 from Washington University/St. Louis, followed by a research fellowship in neurology there. He then did postdoctoral work at the NIH and at the University College London, where he worked with A.F. Huxley. He was an assistant professor of physiology at Duke from 1966 until 1969, when he joined Rochester as associate professor. Named "Teacher of the Year" by Rochester's freshman medical class in 1973, he was promoted to full professor in 1974. He joined Penn in 1975--the year he also won the Biophysical Society's K.S. Cole Award. Among other honors he has since headed the Society of General Physiologists (1985-86); been elected to the National Academy (1987); and shared Columbia's Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize (1996).


* For the 1998 Lasker Clinical Medical Research Awards to Dr. Peter C. Nowell and Dr. Alfred G. Knudson, Jr., see Almanac September 22, 1998.


** Two of the 61 are Dr. Michael S. Brown, C '62, M '66 (Almanac October 22, 1985); and Dr. Stanley B. Prusiner, C '64, M '68 (Almanac October 7, 1997).

Annenberg School's 40th: Tonight and Tomorrow

The Annenberg School for Communication will celebrate its 40th anniversary--and the opening of its new Annenberg Public Policy Center--with a gala that starts at 7 p.m. tonight with the eighth annual Walter and Leonore Annenberg Distinguished Lecture in Communication, given in the Zellerbach Theater by Duncan Kenworthy--filmaker, producer, and 1973 alumnus of the School.

A 9 a.m. address by New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman will open tomorrow's events, which include the dedication of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at 11 a.m.; a speech by NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw at 11:45; and one at 6 p.m. by David Halberstam, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author.

During the afternoon there will be panel sessions including Presidential Election Campaigns: Past and Future, moderated by David Eisenhower, and five others led by members of the Annenberg School: Television and Popular Culture, by Associate Professor of Communication Barbie Zelizer; Media and the Dialogue of Democracy, by Associate Professor Vincent E. Price; Health Communication, Professor Robert C. Hornik; Information and Society, by Professor Joseph Turow; and Media and the Developing Mind by Senior Research Investigator Amy Jordan.

On Parental Notification in Alcohol and Drug Cases

Under recent changes in the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, colleges and universities are now allowed to report violations of drinking and drug laws to the parents of minors under 21, and to disclose disciplinary sanctions for those found responsible for "crimes of violence" and "non-forcible sexual offenses."

Published For Comment in this issue is a report of a committee headed by Dr. Richard Beeman, dean of The College, which proposes Penn guidelines for notifying parents of drug and alcohol-related violations under the revised law. President Rodin and Provost Barchi ask feedback by October 15, and will issue a decision after campus-wide discussion including a UA Forum.

The committee will reconvene shortly to examine the other instances when parents may be notified.

Almanac, Vol. 46, No. 5, September 28, 1999