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National Medal of Science

Written by Jennifer Bails

Bert W. O’Malley

Bert W. O’Malley

In the early 1970s, scientists began speculating about a kind of molecule that helps hormones regulate which genes in the body are turned on or off. Yet only in the past decade did technology evolve to allow researchers to identify the mysterious molecules. Now known as coactivators, these elusive molecules might underlie a wide range of complex disorders such as diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease—as well as help control memory, learning, reproductive functions, and other key physiological processes. Turns out, they’re vital to human life.

At the forefront of this new research frontier is University of Pittsburgh graduate Bert W. O’Malley (A&S ’59, MED ’63), the longtime chair of molecular and cellular biology at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, where he has conducted extensive research on coactivators. He was recently honored for his pioneering work on hormone action with the National Medal of Science—the highest U.S. award for a scientist—presented by then President George W. Bush. “It was an unexpected and humbling experience,” he says about the White House ceremony.

O’Malley first grew interested in studying hormones while taking an elective laboratory course as a medical student at Pitt. Today, he is widely recognized as the father of molecular endocrinology, the field that studies how hormones function at the molecular level. He describes coactivators as “little molecules with big goals.” More than 300 coactivators have been identified so far, half of which already have been linked to human disease.

After a decade spent identifying these regulatory molecules and figuring out how they work, O’Malley has as his goal the translation of this fundamental science into the development of powerful new medical therapies.