Five researchers will take home the 2009 Lasker Awards for basic and clinical medical research. Considered the most prestigious medical research awards in the United States, 76 past recipients have gone on to win a Nobel Prize. A third award, for public service, has gone to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for his efforts to improve public health.
John Gurdon of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Japan will receive the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for their work on nuclear reprogramming. Gurdon overturned the prevailing idea in the 1950s that as cells specialize, they lose the genes necessary to become other cell types. In the 1960s, he transplanted nuclei from frog intestine and skin cells into frog egg cells and created a viable animal.
In 2006, Yamanaka took Gurdon's work to the next level by reprogramming adult mouse skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells. Yamanaka found a set of genes that, when inserted into a specialized cell's genome, caused the adult cells to revert back into stem cells. Gurdon says he hopes the work on "rejuvenating" specialized cells will one day allow a patient's own cells to grow new tissue that can treat the disease.
Three researchers will share the Lasker~DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for the development of drugs to treat chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). Brian Druker of Oregon Health and Science University in Portland; Nicholas Lydon, formerly of Novartis and now at San Diego consulting firm Granite Biopharma; and Charles Sawyers of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City sought a way to treat CML that was different from previous cancer drugs. The result was Gleevec. Instead of trying to kill cancer cells faster than healthy cells, the researchers targeted the enzyme called BCR-ABL, which becomes dysfunctional in CML. Once facing a death sentence, CML patients can now expect a 90% survival rate with Gleevec. But the researchers also found patients who relapsed due to cancer cells resistant to Gleevec. Sawyers's work to uncover the molecular basis for this resistance led to the development of another drug, Sprycel, that attacked the resistant CML cells. These drugs, Lydon says, helped show that treatments can "attack the fundamental mutations in a cancer."
Each recipient will receive a $250,000 prize at a ceremony 2 October in New York City.