The Physiological Society left its mark on Professor Gary Lewin early in his career. During his time at the Universities of Sheffield and London, he often attended the meetings that the Society – the oldest network of physiologists worldwide – organized throughout the year. “It is a tradition at these meetings that young researchers report on their work and then have to face very probing questions and pointed critique from the audience,” says Lewin, who leads the Molecular Physiology of Somatic Sensation Lab at the Max Delbrück Center in Berlin. “It was tough to get through, but it was excellent preparation for later.”
A festive evening in London
Lewin also had to give a completely unprepared speech on December 2 at the Royal Society in London. At this year’s Member Forum, an evening event with almost 70 invited guests and a festive dinner, the neurobiologist and pain researcher, who has remained loyal to the Max Delbrück Center for more than a quarter of a century, was named an Honorary Fellow of the Physiological Society along with five other scientists. As the Society, which was founded in 1876 and whose members have included 60 Nobel Prize winners, writes on its website, this Honorary Fellowship is the highest honor that it presents to an individual.
So this year’s group of honorands are all highly distinguished physiologists. The other two male colleagues are the co-winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: Professor David Julius of the University of California, San Francisco, and Professor Arden Patapoutian of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla. Lewin was also delighted that his colleague Irene Tracey, a Professor and the next Vice-Chancellor at the University of Oxford, whom he knows from pain research, was also appointed an Honorary Fellow.
A prominent place in his office
The Physiological Society particularly highlighted the achievements of the Berlin researcher – who was born on the Isle of Man in 1965 and was the first in his family to go to university – in field of somatic sensation, which includes all those sensations that we consciously feel after stimulation of the body. Early in his career he discovered a critical role for nerve growth factor in the development of inflammatory pain hypersensitivity, which the Society cited as a reason for the honor. Later he pioneered the study of the molecular basis of mammalian sensory mechanotransduction that underlies our sense of touch and pain. Both of these research avenues, the Society said, have led to the development of new therapies to treat sensory disorders.
Lewin’s research on the naked mole-rat, which has enriched the Max Delbrück Center for nearly 20 years, was also recognized. He was the first scientist, the Society said, to introduce the animal as an experimental model to probe the molecular basis of extreme physiology. He is delighted to receive the honor and the recognition it brings his work, says Lewin, who has already received numerous awards in his career – including the prestigious and well-funded Ernst Jung Prize for Medicine in 2019. Nevertheless, the Honorary Fellowship of the Physiological Society means a great deal to him. The framed certificate now hangs prominently in his office.
Text: Anke Brodmerkel