NEW YORK — Anthony Pawson, a Canadian cell biologist whose pathbreaking insights about how cells communicate with one another resolved one of science’s oldest mysteries and helped spur the development of a class of drugs that target cancer, diabetes, and other diseases, died Aug. 7 in Toronto. He was 60.
Family members declined to disclose the cause.
In his 1990 breakthrough, Dr. Pawson and his research team identified protein interactions involved in cell signaling, the process by which cells tell one another what to do, when to do it, and when to stop.
Scientists had long known that cells communicated, but no one knew the exact cellular mechanism involved until Dr. Pawson’s research pinpointed it: a protein structure on the surface of every cell membrane. The structure, which he called the SH2 domain, serves as a landing pad for signaling proteins, whichset off a molecular chain reaction carrying information to the cell’s nucleus.
SH2 domain proved to be the linchpin of the cell communications system, and the discovery basically confirmed Dr. Pawson’s initial theory, that “when cells fail to communicate properly, disease happens,” as he defined it in an interview.
Anthony Hunter, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the Salk Institute Cancer Center in San Diego, called the identification of the SH2 domain an “enormously influential idea” that introduced scientists to a fundamentally new principle about how cells work.
“It was a seminal finding,” said Hunter, who collaborated with Dr. Pawson on several papers about cell communication.
Dr. Pawson’s research opened a field of study into the causes and effects of breakdowns in cellular communication. Studies based wholly or in part on his discoveries have produced new treatments for cancer, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, and heart ailments, essentially by blocking or unraveling intercellular miscues.
Perhaps the best known of these is Gleevec, a cancer drug that blocks the abnormal cell signal that causes a rare form of blood cancer called chronic myelogenous leukemia.
Dr. Pawson received many international awards for his work, including the 2008 Kyoto Prize in basic sciences and the Wolf Prize in Medicine in 2005. British-born, he was named to the Order of the Companions of Honour in 2007 by Queen Elizabeth II.
Dr. Pawson had worked at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute in Toronto since 1985, serving as director of research from 2000 to 2005. At his death, colleagues said, he was continuing his cellular research, a pursuit he recently summarized as “understanding how life works.”
In accepting the Kyoto Prize, Dr. Pawson said he had been unaware of the larger implications of his work when he first recognized the SH2 domain. (SH2 is short for the protein subunit known as the Src homology 2 domain.) “Had I known how important it was to be,” he said, “I would have tried to think of a more memorable name.”
Anthony James Pawson — who was known as Tony to his friends and often published papers under the name Tony Pawson — was born on Oct. 18, 1952, in Maidstone, England, the eldest of three children. His father, also known as Tony, a world-class cricket player, champion fly fisherman, and member of the British national soccer team at the 1948 Olympics, wrote about cricket for The London Observer. His mother, Hilarie, was a botanist and high school biology teacher who inspired his interest in science.
Dr. Pawson told friends that he had left Britain in part to escape the shadow of his father’s enduring popularity with sports fans. Receiving an award in England recently, he told Hunter that a fellow scientist had approached him to shake his hand, saying, “I’ve always wanted to meet Tony Pawson.”
“He meant Tony’s father,” Hunter said.