Frances Ashcroft
Frances Ashcroft Reuters

A professor at Oxford University, Frances Ashcroft, has won the top award at the "L'Oreal - UNESCO for Women in Science Awards for 2012".

The $100,000 award recognizes Ashcroft's work in advancing an understanding of insulin secretion and a type of diabetes that develops in the first few months of life. She is one of five women scientists from around the world, who will be named 2012 Laureates for their contribution to science, at a ceremony in March

"This award honors not only myself but also the team of dedicated scientists and collaborators with whom I have worked. I have been enormously fortunate: there is nothing more exciting or more rewarding than discovering something new," said Ashcroft in a statement.

In 1984, as a young researcher at the University of Oxford, Frances Ashcroft set out to explore how a rise in blood glucose stimulates insulin secretion from the beta-cells of the pancreas. She discovered a tiny pore in the outer membrane of the beta-cells, known as the ATP-sensitive potassium channel, that acts as a pathway for potassium ions to move out of the cell. Crucially, she showed that this channel was closed by the breakdown of glucose and this triggered a chain of events that culminated in insulin secretion. She had discovered the missing link connecting glucose to insulin secretion.

In 1995, Professor Ashcroft and others determined the DNA sequence that codes for the potassium ion channel. This enabled them to screen people with diabetes for DNA changes in the channel genes. They identified a common gene variant that causes a small but highly significant increase in the risk of contracting Type 2 Diabetes.

Along with a colleague, Professor Andrew Hattersley, Professor Ashcroft, in 2003, and her team were able to determine how a mutation in the channel gene led to a rare genetic form of diabetes that developed within the first few months of life. Importantly, they found that the channel could be closed by sulphonylurea drugs.

"This award is testament to Professor Ashcroft's intellectual achievements and her energy, dedication and passion for her research. The judges were also struck by her commitment to communicating science to the general public. She is an inspirational role model for younger female scientists," said Professor Gunter Blobel, the president of the jury that decided the awards and winner of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Physiology (Medicine).

Of late however, Professor Ashcroft has focused on a different medical problem - obesity. Her colleagues and herself have illuminated the molecular function of a protein called FTO, which was previously known to influence obesity but whose mechanism of action remained a mystery.