Nobel Laureate Tom Cech To Return To CU From Howard Hughes Medical Institute In Spring 2009

Published: April 1, 2008

Howard Hughes Medical Institute President and University of Colorado at Boulder Distinguished Professor Tom Cech announced today that he will step down as the top HHMI administrator and return to CU in spring 2009 to resume his research and teaching.

Cech, who shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discovery that RNA in living cells is not only a molecule of heredity but also can function as a catalyst, has been president of HHMI since January 2000 and a faculty member at CU-Boulder since 1978. He will resume his position at CU as an HHMI Investigator, which he began in 1988, after he steps down as HHMI president.

"Today, I am announcing my decision to step down from the presidency of this extraordinary organization in spring 2009," wrote Cech in an e-mail to the HHMI community sent today, April 1. "This long advance notice will provide our trustees with the opportunity to receive input from many people in our community as a precursor to the selection of a new president."

In addition to giving HHMI time to select a new leader prior to launching major new scientific initiatives," Cech said he is "ready to return to the adventure of my own research and my own teaching."

"We are honored to have Professor Cech back with us full time," said CU-Boulder Chancellor G.P. "Bud" Peterson. "As CU's first Nobel prize winner, Tom has a special place at the university. As he continues his work for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute on our campus, we look forward to a new era of discovery and innovation, and are excited that our students will have expanded learning opportunities by virtue of his ongoing research. This is a great day for CU-Boulder."

In his letter, Cech listed a number of accomplishments at HHMI in the last decade, including the development of new programs to support patient-oriented researchers and broadening the definition of biomedicine to embrace more interdisciplinary work. He also has developed changes in the way HHMI selects its investigators in order to choose from a deeper pool of candidates, launched the Janelia Farm Research Campus and developed new opportunities to bridge HHMI's science education and research activities.

"Many people were instrumental in Professor Cech's return to Colorado, including Gov. Bill Ritter, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, Don Elliman, the governor's director of economic development and a number of CU donors and faculty. Former CU President Hank Brown, CU-Boulder Chancellor Bud Peterson and UC Denver Chancellor Roy Wilson also played key roles," said CU President Bruce Benson. "The implications of Professor Cech's research are enormous for Colorado's emerging biotech economy, and will play a vital role in making the Front Range a center of discovery and innovation that will benefit our faculty, students, and all Coloradans."

Cech continued to maintain his research laboratory at CU-Boulder after he was named HHMI president in January 2000 and has been returning to campus on a regular basis ever since then to collaborate with faculty, researchers and students.

His laboratory now studies the activity and regulation of telomerase, a key enzyme for replicating the ends of chromosomes.

HHMI Investigators are selected by the institute for their potential to make significant contributions to science. As HHMI employees, they are based at their home institutions and typically lead research groups of students, postdoctoral researchers and technicians and are supported by field staff throughout the country.

Currently there are three other HHMI Investigators at CU-Boulder: Professor Natalie Ahn of chemistry and biochemistry; Professor Min Han of molecular, cellular and developmental (MCD) biology; and Professor Kristi Anseth of chemical and biological engineering.

Cech was named a CU Distinguished Professor of chemistry and biochemistry in 1990, and also is a rostered faculty member in CU-Boulder's MCD biology department and at the Anschutz Medical Campus of the University of Colorado Denver.

Cech's Nobel Prize-winning discovery of self-splicing RNA provided the first exception to the long-held belief that biological reactions are always catalyzed by proteins. In addition, it has been heralded as providing a new, plausible scenario for the origin of life, since RNA can be both an information-carrying molecule and a catalyst.

In addition to the 1989 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Cech has won a number of other international awards and prizes, including the Heineken Prize of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences (1988), the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award (1988) and the National Medal of Science (1995). In 1987 Cech was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and also was awarded a lifetime professorship by the American Cancer Society.