Two pioneers in the study of neural signaling and three researchers responsible for modern cochlear implants are winners of The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation’s annual prize, announced today. The prestigious award honoring contributions in the medical sciences is often seen as a hint at future Nobel contenders. The prizes for basic and clinical research each carry a $250,000 honorarium.
Richard Scheller of the biotech company Genentech and Thomas Südhof of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, got their basic research Laskers for discovering the mechanisms behind rapid the release of neurotransmitters—the brain’s chemical messengers—into the space between neurons. This process underlies all communication among brain cells, and yet it was “a black box” before Scheller and Südhof’s work, says their colleague Robert Malenka, a synaptic physiologist at Stanford.
The two worked independently in the late 1980s to identify individual proteins that mediate the process, and their development of genetically altered mice lacking these proteins was “an ambitious and high-risk approach,” Malenka says. Although “they weren’t setting out to understand any sort of disease,” their discoveries have helped unravel the genetic basis for neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.
This year’s clinical research prizes went to Graeme Clark, Ingeborg Hochmair, and Blake Wilson for their work to restore hearing to the deaf. In the 1970s, Hochmair and Clark of the cochlear implant company MED-EL in Innsbruck, Austria, and the University of Melbourne, respectively, were the first to insert multiple electrodes into the human cochlea to stimulate nerves that respond to different frequencies of sound. Wilson, now at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, later refined the technology with a strategy known as “continuous interleaved sampling” (CIS), which allowed the implants to process speech clearly. CIS continues to be the most effective way to translate acoustic information into electrical signals that the brain can interpret, says otolaryngologist Debara Tucci, who with Wilson co-directs the Duke Hearing Center. Before modern implants, “patients were really terrified” at the prospect of deafness, she says. These contributions have “changed the lives of thousands and thousands of people for the better.”
The five scientists, along with Bill and Melinda Gates, who won a Lasker public service prize, will be recognized at an award ceremony in New York City on 20 September.