Nahum Sonenberg: Translating genetic code to combat disease

Born in 1946 in a German displaced persons camp, to Jewish parents who had fled Poland, Nahum Sonenberg was raised in Israel at a time when polio posed a major threat to public health. Frequent outbreaks left a lasting impression, ultimately shaping Sonenberg’s path as a trailblazer in the field of genetic code translation.

In 1976, he uncovered a critical molecule known as elF4E, which translates genetic code into proteins – a discovery that had far-reaching impacts in medicine and proved to be a major turning point in his career. “That was one of the best experiments I did in my life and it turned out to be important for many diseases,” he remembers.

Since joining McGill’s biochemistry department in 1979, Sonenberg’s pioneering research has led to promising new treatments and innovative applications to combat a host of human diseases, from various forms of cancer to memory diseases, autism, traumatic brain injury and depression. In 2006, Sonenberg’s decades of achievement were recognized with his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and his discoveries have been recognized with a wide range of awards including the Wolf Prize in Medicine, the Robert L. Noble Prize from the National Cancer Institute of Canada, the Gairdner Foundation International Award, and the Prix du Québec Wilder-Penfield prize for biomedical research. He was appointed as Officer of the Order of Canada in 2010.

As Sonenberg pursues each new lead in translation control, he taps into a deep sense of curiosity and desire to push boundaries. “What keeps me excited is investigating ideas that are original, which can lead to a better understanding of the science. You do science, step on something important and you grab it!”