Leukemia Drug and Magnet Material Net Japan Prizes

25 January 2012 10:21 am

Japan Prize Foundation

Winners. Clockwise from top left: Brian J. Druker, Masato Sagawa, Janet D. Rowley, and Nicholas B. Lydon.

TOKYO—A trio of American researchers will share one of this year's Japan Prizes for bringing their work on a leukemia drug from a basic discovery to a clinical success, while a Japanese material scientist is taking the other prize for a breakthrough with permanent magnets.

Janet Rowley of the University of Chicago, Brian Druker of the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, and Nicholas Lydon of Blueprint Medicines in Cambridge, Massachusetts, jointly won the Healthcare and Medical Technology prize for developing a leukemia drug called imatinib, better known as Gleevec in the United States and Glivec elsewhere. In the 1970s, Rowley identified several chromosomal translocations—in which a part of one chromosome gets transferred to another—in patients suffering chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). Lydon, then at Ciba-Geigy (now Novartis) in Basel, Switzerland, and Druker later collaborated to develop compounds that inhibit the activity of the abnormal enzyme resulting from the translocations, which causes runaway cell proliferation. They steered imatinib through clinical trials starting in 1998.

Now used as a once-a-day pill, the drug has made CML, once fatal within 3 to 5 years, "a manageable disease," Druker said at the prize announcement press conference today. He added that "hundreds of other drugs in development" are based on the same approach of blocking the activity of specific enzymes associated with a given type of cancer.

Masato Sagawa, of Kyoto-based Intermetallics Co., won the prize in the field of Environment, Energy, and Infrastructure for work on the neodymium-iron-boron alloy which constitutes the high-performance permanent magnets at the heart of energy-efficient motors used in everything from hard disk drives to construction equipment. Sagawa did his key research at Fujitsu Ltd. and Sumitomo Special Metals in the 1970s and 1980s. He continues to refine the material to extend the range of applications.

The three healthcare laureates will share equally one $650,000 award; Sagawa alone gets an equal sum. All four will receive their awards, including commemorative gold medals, at an April ceremony in Tokyo.