Brandeis Alumni, Family and Friends

Jan Steyaert Named 2022 Jacob and Louise Gabbay Award Winner

August 12, 2022

Jan Steyaert, scientific director of the VIB-VUB Center for Structural Biology, Vlaams Instituut Biotechnologie, at the Vrije Universiteit Brusle, Brussels, Belgium, has been named the winner of Brandeis’ 24th Jacob and Louise Gabbay Award in Biotechnology and Medicine.

Jan Steyaert

Jan Steyaert will be presented with the Gabbay Award at Brandeis University on October 27 when he will give a public lecture on his work, followed by a ceremony.

This award recognizes the combination of Steyaert’s fundamental research and his ability to apply the research to the development of therapeutic technologies. Steyaert bridged fundamental high-impact research in biomedical sciences with the mechanistic understanding of one of the biggest classes of pharmaceutical targets by combining structural biology and advanced biotechnology. 

Steyaert was instrumental in the development of Camelid single-domain antibodies (also known as nanobodies) being used for groundbreaking contributions to structural biology, initially, the determination of G-Protein Coupled Receptor structures, that have eluded traditional approaches. The researchers who determined the structure of one of these, with the use of these nanobodies, received the Nobel prize.  

Steyaert introduced nanobodies as exquisite generic tools to freeze dynamic proteins into single functional conformations. Structural experiments using X-ray crystallography and cryo-EM can then be used to determine structures of different still images of the same moving molecule. This experimental approach turned out to be a game changer to advance the frontiers of knowledge.

The second major use of nanobodies is for therapeutic interventions that are being developed by companies. Steyaert co-founded the nanobody-based companies Ablynx (now part of Sanofi) and Biotalys (formerly called Agrosavfe), and more recently, ConfoTherapeutics. ConfoTherapeutics uses his nanobody technology to lock inherently unstable conformations as a starting point for drug discovery. In addition, nanobodies can be introduced inside living cells (intrabodies) as conformational sensors.

“Jan Steyaert is being recognized for the introduction of nanobody technology as exquisite tools to lock inherently unstable, dynamic proteins into single functional conformations,” said Dagmar Ringe, emerita professor of biochemistry and chemistry, and chair of the award committee. “His work is not only important for mechanisms in structural biology but also for structure-based drug discovery within the context of the pharmaceutical industry.”

This year’s Gabbay Lecture will be held in memory of Dr. Kenneth Gabbay, professor emeritus at the Baylor College of Medicine – Molecular Diabetes and Metabolism, who passed away on March 15, 2022. Dr. Gabbay was a true champion of the sciences and scientists at Brandeis; he established the Gabbay Award in Biotechnology and Medicine at Brandeis in 1998.