Britton Chance was awarded the Dr H.P. Heineken Prize for Biochemistry and Biophysics 1970 for his new biophysical techniques whereby biochemical and biophysical processes which can be studied in detail in vitro in isolated systems by a variety of highly sophisticated methodologies, can also be studied in their natural and more complex membrane environment.
Britton Chance describes his field of study as ‘membrane bioenergetics: the study of the control and coupling of energy-conserving and energy-requiring reactions in biological membranes. Chance points out that they must go together with ‘the study of these reactions in the highly complex environment in which they occur in nature. And it is in this most complex environment that the most important processes of membrane bioenergetics occur – not only the basic steps by which the energy from the oxygen molecule or from a photon of sunlight is converted to useful work in the living cell, but also the whole range of cell functions, including that most complex function of all: memory, learning and abstract thought.’ The importance of Chance’s work in this field of research lies in the fact that he has new biophysical techniques whereby biochemical and biophysical processes which can be studied in detail in vitro in isolated systems by a variety of highly sophisticated methodologies, can also be studied in their natural and more complex membrane environment.
The experimental data thus derived have formed the basis for new theories and detailed reaction mechanisms for cell function. The contributions of Professor Chance are not confined to enzymelogy and bioenergetics. Perhaps the field that interests him most of all is the mechanism of metabolic control in the intact cell, even in the living mammal. Chemical methodology is of limited application to this problem. Sensitive optical methods that Chance has developed are capable of following the detailed changes in the mitochondria, for example, following upon changes in the physiological state of the animal. In considering the future of membrane bioenergetics, Professor Chance pointed out that within the membrane structure that the origin of many diseases – among them our most distressing and crippling afflictions – may be found. And since membranes play a key role in all of biology, it is obvious that not only medical science, but also veterinary and agricultural science as well, will benefit from these studies. And so it is no small part of the goal of membrane bioenergetics to bridge the gap between the structures of the isolated components and their structure as they may exist in their state in nature, with a continuous and highly significant impact upon the agricultural, veterinary, medical, and – in the sense that mind is essentially a problem of bioenergetics – the psychological, behavioural, and social sciences as well.’
About the laureate
Britton Chance was born on July 24, 1913 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania (USA). In 1940 he graduated in physical chemistry in Philadelphia (USA) and in 1942 he graduated in biology from Cambridge (UK). Before the Second World War he was especially occupied by the study of enzyme mechanisms. During the war he was head of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology team engaged in precision instrumentation and radio reception. His contributions to the development of radar were recognized in 1950, when he received the Presidential Certificate of Merit. After the war he again took up enzyme research. In 1962 he was appointed doctor medicinae honoris causa by the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm. Since 1949 Chance has been Professor of Biophysics and Director of the Eldridge Reeves Johnson Foundation for Medical Physics at the University of Pennsylvania (USA). He has published more than 500 scientific articles covering many fields of biochemistry, biophysics and physiology. The experimental methods and approach introduced by him dominate current research into the mechanism of intracellular respiration and photosynthesis.
In addition to the awards mentioned above, he has also received the Paul Lewis Award in Enzyme Chemistry (1950) and the Gold Medal of the Genootschap ter bevordering van Natuur-, Genees- en Heelkunde, Amsterdam (1965). In 1975 he was awarded a National Medal of Science by the President of the United States of America.
Chance passed away in November 2010.