Professor Christine Petit receives the 2018 Kavli Prize

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The Institut Pasteur, the Collège de France, the French Academy of Sciences and Inserm are honored to announce that the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has decided to award the 2018 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience to Christine Petit for her pioneering work on the molecular and neural mechanisms of hearing. This prize, which is awarded every two years, consists of a $1 million (U.S.) fund which will be shared between Christine Petit and two other world-leading researchers: A. James Hudspeth (The Rockefeller University, USA) and Robert Fettiplace (University of Wisconsin–Madison, USA). The award ceremony will take place in Oslo on September 4, 2018.


Christine Petit, an eminent researcher and head of the Genetics and Physiology of Hearing Joint Research Unit at the Institut Pasteur (Inserm/Sorbonne University), a Member of the French Academy of Sciences and a Professor at the Collège de France, has recently been selected as a laureate of the 2018 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience. This prize goes to scientists who have made pioneering discoveries in the field. This year, three researchers will share $1 million (U.S.) in recognition of their discoveries related to the molecular and cellular mechanisms of hearing. 

Christine Petit, who is also a Member of the French Academy of Sciences and the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, has dedicated the majority of her research career to the biology of hearing. She has explored the genetics of deafness in humans and identified around twenty genes that are required for hearing and especially for inner ear function. She has elucidated the mechanisms through which abnormalities in these genes cause hearing deficits, thus shedding light on the unique biology of the sensory cells known as "hair cells" and informing deafness diagnosis and genetic counseling in this area. Several of the genes she identified form major components of the hair cell mechanotransduction machinery.

Along with the breakthroughs made by the other two laureates, A. James Hudspeth (The Rockefeller University, New York, USA) and Robert Fettiplace (University of Wisconsin–Madison, USA), Christine Petit’s research work has helped unveil the molecular and cellular mechanisms that underlie hearing and deafness.

As Professor Christine Petit explains, "it is a huge pleasure to see three highly complementary facets of the same research field honored by this prestigious prize. The exploration of new curative therapies for the inner ear has only been made possible today because of this knowledge acquired with my colleagues and our collaborators."

The three laureates used complementary approaches to elucidate the mechanisms used by hair cells in the inner ear to transform sounds into electrical signals that can be deciphered by the brain.

"They have developed three fundamentally new perspectives on the way in which our inner ear transforms sound into electrical signals – the basis of hearing – and have revealed the genetic and molecular mechanisms that underpin hearing loss," says Ole Petter Ottersen, Chair of the Kavli Prize Committee in Neuroscience. "Their research is a perfect illustration of how concerted efforts involving several disciplines and technologies can revolutionize our understanding of complex neurobiological processes."

These three researchers will be awarded the Kavli Prize at a ceremony held in Oslo, Norway, on September 4, 2018 and presided over by His Majesty King Harald. After receiving their gold medals, they will attend a banquet at Oslo's famed City Hall, the venue of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

 

About the Kavli Prizes

The Kavli Prize is a partnership between The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, The Kavli Foundation (U.S.), and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research. It is named after Fred Kavli, a Norwegian-born U.S. philanthropist and founder of the Kavli Foundation.

First awarded in 2008, the Kavli Prizes have so far honored 47 scientists from eleven countries: France, Germany, Japan, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Sweden and Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The prizes go to scientists who have made major advances in our understanding of life at its biggest, smallest and most complex scales. Presented every two years in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience, each of the three international prizes consists of $1 million (U.S.). The winners also receive a gold medal.

Laureates are chosen by committees whose members are recommended by six of the world's most renowned science societies and academies. These institutions are the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the French Academy of Sciences, the Max Planck Society (Germany), the National Academy of Sciences (United States), the Royal Society (United Kingdom) and the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.

 

About Christine Petit

Christine Petit studied medicine at Pierre & Marie Curie University, Paris, and basic biological sciences, genetics and biochemistry at Orsay University, before completing her PhD at the Institut Pasteur. In 2002, she was appointed as a Professor at the Collège de France and holder of the Chair in Genetics and Cell Physiology. She was also elected as a Corresponding Member of the French Academy of Sciences in 1996 and a Member in 2002. Christine Petit is currently head of the Genetics and Physiology of Hearing Joint Research Unit at the Institut Pasteur (Inserm UMR 1120, Sorbonne University).

Christine Petit began her career with research on human sex chromosome inversion. From 1991 onwards, she developed a genetics approach to the biology of sensory systems, based on an examination of hereditary disorders. In 1994 she began publishing work on hereditary deafness, leading to new experimental models with which she has revealed the roles of various gene-encoded proteins in sound processing.

Among her many achievements, Professor Petit has elucidated the genetic basis of human hearing loss and discovered vital molecular mechanisms employed by auditory sensory cells to receive and encode sound. She has also unraveled the pathogenic processes that govern various hearing disorders caused by genetic or environmental factors and affecting either just the sensory organ or also the auditory cortex. This research forms a broad base of knowledge on which new therapeutic approaches are currently being developed. With her colleagues, Christine Petit has also shed light on the links between auditory sensory cells and photoreceptors through her work on Usher syndrome, the most widespread form of hereditary hearing loss associated with loss of vision.

Professor Christine Petit has received a number of prestigious awards for her research, including the Award of Merit from the Association for Research in Otolaryngology (ARO, United States), the Hugh Knowles Prize (United States), the Medical Research Award from the Pasarow Foundation (United States), the Brain Prize awarded by the Grete Lundbeck Foundation, the Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine (Europe), the L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award (Europe), the Bristol-Myers Squibb "Freedom to Discover" Award for Neuroscience (United States), the Ernst Jung Prize for Medicine (Germany), the Charles-Leopold Mayer Prize from the French Academy of Sciences and the 2007 Inserm Grand Prix. 

 

About hearing and the other two laureates' research work

Hearing is an important sense that contributes to human communication. Christine Petit, A. James Hudspeth and Robert Fettiplace, the three Kavli Prize laureates, used complementary approaches to unravel the mechanisms by which nerve cells transform sounds into electrical signals. This process is performed in the inner ear by sensory receptors called hair cells. The unique cellular, molecular and biophysical properties of these cells enable them to detect small air vibrations across a wide range of frequencies. The electrical signals generated by hair cells are then transmitted into the brain, allowing them to be interpreted as language, music, or noise.

James Hudspeth has provided the major framework for our understanding of the process that transduces sound into neural signals. Extending from each hair cell is a bundle of fine processes that act as sensors. Hudspeth used ingenious methods to reveal how sound-induced vibrations, which set the hair bundle in motion, evoke an electrical response in the hair cells through a direct mechanical connection between the hair bundle and ion channels. He also revealed how sound signals, which can be extremely small, are amplified within the inner ear.

Robert Fettiplace has made fundamental contributions to our understanding of sound transduction and demonstrated that each hair cell in the cochlea of the inner ear is sensitive to a specific range of sound frequencies. His experiments revealed that hair cells are organized along the cochlea in a pattern that reflects their frequency selectivity. Using sensitive physiological measurements and theoretical modeling, he discovered that this selectivity reflects an intrinsic electrical property of the cell, set by the density and kinetics of its ion channels that induce a resonance at a particular frequency.

 

To find out more about each of the prizes, the 2018 laureates and their research, go to: www.kavliprize.org

 

AURÉLIE PERTHUISON
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