Four scientists have won a Lasker Award for work that includes the discovery of an appetite-mediating hormone and uncovering a protein that drives blood vessel growth. The Laskers are generally considered the most prestigious awards in the United States for biomedical research.
Douglas Coleman, who retired from the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, after a career spent studying diabetes and obesity, and Jeffrey Friedman, an obesity researcher at Rockefeller University in New York City, will share the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for their discovery of the hormone leptin. Fat cells release leptin into the bloodstream, and it helps control appetite.
An intriguing finding Coleman described in the late 1960s set the stage for the discovery: He found that sewing together the blood circulations of two mice, one with a disease such as diabetes and one healthy, caused the healthy animal to begin rejecting food. Coleman surmised that the diabeticlike mouse had released some substance into the healthy animal that dampened its appetite. Nearly 30 years later, Friedman identified the protein responsible for this, which he named leptin after the Greek word "leptos" for "thin." Since the late 1990s, there's been enormous interest in harnessing leptin as a weight-loss drug, but so far, it's proven most effective for a small number of people who have a mutation in the leptin receptor gene. Still, the discovery of leptin has led to a burst of interest and new knowledge in appetite and obesity, in which the hormone has a central role. "I never dreamed leptin would have such significance," said Coleman in an interview.
On the clinical side, Napoleone Ferrara of Genentech (now owned by the drug company Roche), in South San Francisco, California, won the Lasker~DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for 25 years of work on angiogenesis, the process by which the body grows new blood vessels. He began the research while a postdoc at the University of California, San Francisco; in 1989, shortly after moving to Genentech, he discovered vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), a protein critical to blood vessel growth. "I was actually hired to do something different," said Ferrara in an interview, but he "had latitude" to continue his angiogenesis work on the side. Ferrara and colleagues in academia and at Genentech subsequently developed a drug that treats macular degeneration by inhibiting VEGF and preventing abnormal blood vessels from forming in the retina. That therapy, ranibizumab (brand name Lucentis), was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2006. Genentech also developed a closely related drug, bevacizumab (brand name Avastin) that fights cancer by choking off the blood supply to tumors. "I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to follow this story all the way from the beginning," says Ferrara.
The Lasker~Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science went to David Weatherall of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom for decades of work, beginning in the 1950s, on the inherited blood disease thalassemia.
Each award comes with $250,000, and the winners will be honored at a ceremony next Friday. More information on this year's winners can be found here.