New Breakthrough Prize Awards Millions to Life Scientists

20 February 2013 4:45 pm

Zach Veilleux/The Rockefeller University

Winner. Life scientist Cornelia Bargmann of Rockefeller University was one winner of a new $3 million prize.

Eleven scientists became multimillionaires this morning when they were named the first winners of the new Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. Each researcher, whose specialties include genetics, stem cells, and cancer, will receive $3 million dollars, more than twice the maximum amount of a Nobel Prize.

Funded by several Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, including Arthur Levinson of Apple, venture capitalist Yuri Milner, and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, the Breakthrough Prize aims to "recogniz[e] excellence in research aimed at curing intractable diseases and extending human life," according to the foundation's Web site.

The first group of winners includes Cornelia I. Bargmann of Rockefeller University in New York City; David Botstein of Princeton University; Lewis C. Cantley of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City; Hans Clevers of the Hubrecht Institute in the Netherlands; Napoleone Ferrara of the University of California, San Diego; Titia de Lange of Rockefeller University; Eric S. Lander of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge; Charles L. Sawyers of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City; Bert Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland; Robert A. Weinberg of MIT; and the 2012 Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University and the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco.

"I was a bit stunned, not only by the magnitude of the prize," but also by being counted among an outstanding group of researchers, says Ferrara, who won for his work on blood vessel growth in tumors. "It is a great honor to be in this group."

Bargmann, who studies the influence of genetics and the environment on the nervous system, agrees, saying she was particularly pleased to win alongside Weinberg, who was her Ph.D. adviser at MIT. "How great is that?"

Neither winner has decided how they will use the prize money, though Bargmann says she's thinking about doing something to promote conservation in the developing world. Ferrara, for his part, says, "I'm not going to Las Vegas, that's for sure."

The Breakthrough Prize is an outgrowth of Milner's Fundamental Physics Prize, which he inaugurated last summer by awarding nine theoretical physicists $3 million dollars each. He followed up a few months later with additional prizes for Stephen Hawking and the teams of experimental physicists behind the discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN. Like the physics prize, the new life sciences prize is already drawing criticism for focusing on already established researchers. "Breakthrough scientific research doesn't come from just a handful of scientists who have already made a name for themselves, but from collaborations between many researchers," Eva Amsen writes on the developmental biology blog The Node. "Preserving a broad network of researchers may in the long run be more rewarding than only awarding the top talent."

That concern may be addressed in the coming years, when recipients will be selected by previous winners. Ferrara, for one, says he will be looking particularly at "rising stars" when selecting future winners, whereas Bargmann says she's hoping to recognize "exciting advances that make a difference." Ultimately, the foundation plans to award five Breakthrough Prizes per year.

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