Yesterday, the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation announced the 2016 recipients of the prestigious Lasker Awards, and the Cancer Research Institute congratulates these deserving scientists, whose work has opened up promising new approaches to cancer treatment.
Long regarded among the highest honors in the life sciences, the Lasker Awards―given for basic medical research, clinical research, and special achievement―recognize scientists who have made “major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of human disease.”
The 2016 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award went to Charles M. Rice, Ph.D., of The Rockefeller University, who previously sponsored two Cancer Research Institute postdoctoral fellows—Arash Grakoui, Ph.D., a CRI fellow from 2001-2004 and now an associate professor at Emory Vaccine Center, and Steven D. London, D.D.S., Ph.D., a CRI fellow from 1989-1991 and now a professor and associate dean for research at Stony Brook University. Dr. Rice and his two co-recipients—Ralf F.W. Bartenschlager, Ph.D., of the University of Heidelberg, and Michael J. Sofia, Ph.D., of Arbutus Biopharma—helped develop a system that enabled research into the hepatitis C virus (HCV), which eventually led to the creation of a new drug to treat HCV infection.
HCV, which is a major cause of liver cancer, infects 130-150 million people and kills hundreds of thousands of them every year from hepatitis C-related liver diseases. For a long time, scientists had no way to study HCV, since it requires live host cells to function. Luckily, the Lasker honorees not only provided researchers with a way to probe HCV’s activity, but also allowed for the development of a drug, sofosbuvir (Sovaldi®), that prevents HCV from making copies of its RNA. This breakthrough enables doctors to effectively treat people infected by HCV and has already cured many people of the disease.
The 2016 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award went to William G. Kaelin Jr., M.D., of the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center, Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe, FRS, of the University of Oxford and the Francis Crick Institute, and Gregg L. Semenza, M.D., Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins Medicine. These honorees were chosen for their work on how our cells sense and respond to oxygen levels in their environment. Oxygen is an important factor in many cellular activities, and the system that helps cells detect oxygen influences many aspects of cell behavior. It’s even been shown that cancers can hijack this system to support tumor progression and survival.
Finally, the 2016 Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science is being given to Bruce M. Alberts, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Francisco. Dr. Alberts has made significant contributions both in scientific research―through his work that helped advance our understanding of and ability to study DNA replication in cells―as well as scientific outreach and education during his career, which included serving 12 years as the president of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Lasker Awards, which come with a $250,000 prize, are considered some of the most prestigious biomedical research awards in the world, next to the Nobel Prize. In fact, 87 previous Lasker Award winners have gone on to win the Nobel Prize, including 41 in the last three decades.
Last year’s winner of the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award was James P. Allison, Ph.D., who is the chair of Immunology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, as well as the director of the Cancer Research Institute’s Scientific Advisory Council. Dr. Allison received the award for his breakthrough work on checkpoint inhibitors, a type of immunotherapy that prevents anti-cancer immune responses from being suppressed, enabling immune cells to better eliminate tumors. His work was pivotal in the revolution in immunotherapy that led the journal Science to declare it the “Breakthrough of the Year” in 2013 and the American Society of Clinical Oncology to name it the “Clinical Cancer Advance of the Year” in 2016.
Congratulations again to all of this year’s Lasker Award winners!
Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash