The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation announced Tuesday that the prestigious Lasker Awards will be given to six researchers who made revolutionary discoveries in virology and physiology, and to one scientist who has been a committed supporter of science education.
The Lasker Awards are among the highest honors in medical and clinical research. Each award comes with a $250,000 prize. So far, 87 Lasker winners have also won the coveted Nobel Prize, according to the New York Times.
Joseph L. Goldstein, chairman of the foundation’s awards body, says this year’s recognitions are a nod to the additive nature of scientific research, with the prizes going to scientists who worked individually but built on each other’s results.
William G. Kaelin Jr., Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza, all physician-scientists, are set to share the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for explaining how the cellular path in almost all animals responds to various oxygen levels.
Semenza, a pediatric geneticist at Johns Hopkins and Ratcliffe, a kidney specialist at Oxford, began working independently of each other in the 1980s to study how hypoxia — oxygen deprivation — triggers hormone production that creates red blood cells to fight the condition.
Their work led to the discovery of a protein called HIF-1 that appeared only when oxygen was lacking and activated other genes in a large, interconnected network responding to oxygen.
Kaelin, a cancer specialist at the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center, began researching a rare genetic syndrome called Von Hippel-Lindau disease or VHL in the 1990s. In the course of his work, he found out that the VHL protein helps eliminate hypoxia-related compounds from cells when there is plenty of oxygen.
Ratcliffe was then able to explain why HIF-1 changed according to oxygen levels, linking VHL to the removal of HF-1 in high oxygen conditions. Since then, more researchers have discovered other related proteins that factored into the human body’s biological and medical processes, including studies on cancers and cardiovascular diseases.
The Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, on the other hand, is earmarked for Dr. Ralf F.W. Bartenschlager and Dr. Charles M. Rice for coming up with a system that replicates the hepatitis C virus (HCV) in a laboratory. They share it with Dr. Michael J. Sofia, who used the system to develop as new, potent but safe drug to treat the disease.
Bartenschlager, a virologist at the University of Heidelberg and Rice, a virologist at Rockefeller University, began studying HCV in 1989, after the virus’ genome was successfully sequenced.
Researchers had thought it was simply a matter of putting the newly sequenced RNA into cells and waiting for them to replicate. But the experiments failed.
Rice and colleagues found that the genome was missing several pieces, and Bartenschlager figured out a way to replicate the virus in cultured cells. Their efforts allowed drug researchers to test their theories, one of whom was Sofia.
Sofia, the chief scientific officer at the pharmaceutical company Arbutus Biopharma, had just joined Pharmasset in 2005. The company was looking to create a new HCV drug. Other scientists had developed a chemical that blocked the virus’ ability to replicate RNA, but it was not a viable compound. Sofia improved it by creating a “slippery” surface for the compound to allow it to easily enter liver cells. Once in the liver, enzymes would turn the compound into a drug, stripping off the coating so that the compound could not get out of the liver and into other cells.
Those efforts led to the creation of the oral drug sofosbuvir, which can treat and eliminate long-term HCV without serious side effects. Sovaldi, the first medication from sofosbuvir, got its FDA approval in 2013.
The Lasker-Koshland Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science goes to Bruce M. Alberts for his work in molecular biology and his firm tireless advocacy of science in public schools.
Alberts, a biochemist at the University of California, studied DNA synthesis in the 1970s and came up with discoveries on how cells carry out certain physiological procedures. He and co-authors published, “Molecular Biology of the Cell” in 1983, which has since been translated into 11 languages. He has also been a proponent of teaching students to use evidence and logic and to find different solutions for problems, instead of rote memorization.
“The fundamental purpose of science education is not to produce more scientists — that’s one function — but to foster scientific thinking skills and values in everyone,” Alberts has said.