Genetics, Vitamin A Win Laskers

23 September 1997 8:00 pm

This year's Albert Lasker medical research awards, each worth $25,000, go to two scientists who have done pioneering work in genetics and to a physician who brought vitamin A therapy to children throughout Africa and Asia.

The Basic Research Award, announced yesterday, goes to Mark Ptashne, of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, for his groundbreaking work on the molecular basis of gene regulation, the process that turns genes on and off. Thirty years ago, he isolated the lambda repressor, a protein that binds to a specific DNA location and turns off expression of certain genes of a virus that grows inside bacteria. The lambda repressor and its associated proteins became one of the best understood systems of gene regulation and helped him and other researchers understand the process in many higher organisms.

A Special Achievement Award was given to Victor McKusick, of Johns Hopkins University, for advancing the study of the genetic basis of disease, work that led to the Human Genome Project, the intense effort to map the entire human genome. McKusick is optimistic about the future of the field he helped to create: "I think we can expect to ... continue to be amazed by what turns up. I think there are lots of secrets in store in the genome, and we also stand to continue to be amazed by the [medical] applications."

Alfred Sommer, also of Johns Hopkins, receives the Clinical Medical Research Award for his studies of vitamin A therapy for children in the developing world. Although vitamin A deficiency was known to cause blindness in many developing countries, Sommer showed in 1983 that it also dramatically increased child mortality from other, more serious diseases. The finding and many that followed have been incorporated into aid programs sponsored by the World Bank, which believes that vitamin A doses for children are one of the most cost-effective treatments in medicine.

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