Two scientists who discovered a cell "machine" involved in protein folding and a researcher who found a life-saving treatment for malaria are this year's recipients of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation's Lasker Awards, which are among the most prestigious prizes in biomedical research.
Biochemist Franz-Ulrich Hartl, 54, of the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsreid, Germany, and biologist Arthur Horwich, 60, of Yale University share this year's prize for basic medical research. In the late 1980s, they discovered that although a linear string of amino acids can fold into its proper three-dimensional shape in a test tube, the protein cannot do this on its own within a cell. Instead, a cagelike molecular apparatus dubbed a chaperonin wraps itself around the nascent protein and uses ATP, an energy-supplying molecule, to help the amino acid string fold correctly without sticking to other proteins. The work is relevant to various neurodegenerative diseases that involve misfolded proteins, from Alzheimer's disease to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
The 2011 Lasker Award for clinical research goes to Tu Youyou, 81, of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, Beijing. In 1967 during China's Cultural Revolution, Tu took part in a 5-year secret military project to find a treatment for chloroquine-resistant malaria parasites. Starting with 2000 traditional Chinese medicine remedies, her team made hundreds of herbal extracts and tested them in malaria-infected mice, finally settling on one made from sweet wormwood. They then modified the extract and purified it into a drug known as artemisinin that has since saved millions of lives.
A third prize for public service, now dubbed the Lasker~Bloomberg Public Service Award in honor of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who won it himself in 2009), has been awarded to the National Institutes of Health's Clinical Center. The research hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, was honored for its work on rare diseases, including an Undiagnosed Diseases Program which studies unexplained illnesses, as well as for developing treatments such as the AIDS drug AZT.
The winners will receive their awards and a $250,000 honorarium at a ceremony on Friday, 23 September, in New York City. The awards are often a prelude to the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine: 78 winners have subsequently received a Nobel.