The European Union has given its most prestigious scientific award to projects on HIV drug discovery and on a new category of chemical catalysts. The 2-year-old Descartes prize of 1 million Euros ($880,000) is one of the few major prizes that targets collaborative research, unlike prizes designed for individual achievements, such as the Nobel.
The bulk of this year's prize haul--$620,000--goes to a project led by Jan Balzarini and Eric de Clercq of the Rega Institute in Leuven, Belgium, for their discovery of new inhibitors of reverse transcriptase, a key enzyme that helps HIV invade human DNA. One inhibitor, Gilead Sciences's Viread, is expected to receive FDA approval by the end of the year, Balzarini says. Without collaboration across national borders, he says, the project wouldn't have been possible. Labs at the Instituto de Quimica Médica in Madrid and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm synthesized potential inhibitors, which were then screened in Leuven and at the University of Tor Vergata in Rome; scientists at the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry in Prague and the Welsh School of Pharmacy in Cardiff, U.K., fine-tuned the delivery of these potential drugs to target cells. "These days, you cannot do research on your own anymore," says Balzarini.
The rest of the Descartes prize, $260,000, goes to a team led by Michael North of King's College, London, for work in "asymmetric catalysis." Other researchers in this field, also important for drug development, took home this year's Wolf and Nobel prizes. North's team designed catalysts that greatly reduced the cost of manufacturing compounds with so-called "handedness." Most chemical synthesis techniques spawn both a compound and its mirror image, but often only one of these has useful pharmaceutical properties. As with Balzarini's project, collaboration was indispensable: The research required knowledge of a range of chemistry subdisciplines and involved laboratories in Moscow; Yerevan, Armenia; Paris; Oxford; and Rostock, Germany. North says the Descartes prize recognizes an important aspect of his field: "The only way forward is to collaborate. You will not find one person who has all the skills necessary for asymmetric catalysis."
The Descartes prize is a star in the constellation of science awards because of its unique focus, argues jury member Ulf Merbold, a former astronaut and now a manager with the international space station. "These big programs are expensive," he says. "Together we can do much more than we could do as individual scientists."