Virginia Man-Yee Lee

University of Pennsylvania

2020 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences

For discovering TDP43 protein aggregates in frontotemporal dementia and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and revealing that different forms of alpha-synuclein, in different cell types, underlie Parkinson’s disease and Multiple System Atrophy.


I am extremely honored to receive the Breakthrough Prize. Growing up in Hong Kong in a very traditional Chinese family, I never thought of becoming a scientist let alone receiving such a distinguished honor. My mother wanted me to study piano at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Eager to travel and explore the world, I enrolled to study music only to recognize my lack of talent. I left music for science and ended up completing my PhD thesis research with C. H. Li at the University of California, San Francisco, where I received outstanding training in the biochemistry of protein extractions and protein purifications. This skill set turned out to be extremely useful in my efforts to identify some of the proteins involved in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, frontotemporal dementia and ALS, in my independent career. I am indebted to Michael Shelanski and Lloyd Greene, my postdoctoral mentors at the Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Boston where I learned about animal modeling of neurodegenerative diseases. But most importantly, I am eternally grateful to John Trojanowski, my partner and long-term collaborator who not only taught me neuropathology but also inspired me to take on the ambitious challenges of identifying disease proteins in major neurodegenerative disorders. I have been fortunate to have outstanding graduate students and postdoctoral trainees who worked tirelessly on these projects. I also want to thank the NIH and numerous foundations for supporting our work throughout the years. Finally, I want to thank past and current members of our Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research for their contributions in our work.

Virginia Man-Yee Lee