This year's Lasker Awards honor researchers who unraveled how the cell's motor proteins work and others who paved the way for liver transplants. The awards, announced this morning, are the most prestigious U.S. prize in biomedical research.
The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation award for basic medical research goes to Michael Sheetz, 65, of Columbia University; James Spudich, 70, of Stanford University; and Ronald Vale, 53, of the University of California, San Francisco. Starting in the 1970s, their laboratory studies first of a spindly alga called Nitella and, later, of giant squid axons allowed the researchers to probe the proteins that move themselves or other proteins along the cell's internal skeletal network. They also discovered a new cytoskeletal motor protein, kinesin, that walks along filaments known as microtubules. The work revealed how molecular machines allow cells to move and muscles to contract. These studies have pointed toward new potential drugs for cardiac disease and cancer.
Roy Calne, 81, of the University of Cambridge, and Thomas Starzl, 86, of the University of Pittsburgh share this year's Lasker~DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for studies of liver transplantation. Starting in the late 1950s, initially with work on dogs, Calne and Starzl overcame obstacles such as the liver's complex vasculature and pioneered the use of drugs to prevent the immune system from rejecting the transplant. As a result of their work, in 1983 U.S. medical experts accepted liver transplantation as a medical procedure. Tens of thousands of people are alive today because they received a transplant for diseases such as cirrhosis or a blocked bile duct. "The extent to which we succeeded vastly exceeded my expectations," Starzl said in an interview on the Lasker Foundation Web site.
A third prize for special achievement in medical science goes to geneticists Donald Brown of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Baltimore and Tom Maniatis of Columbia University. The two are honored for their research on genes and molecular cloning and for promoting technology and supporting young scientists.
The awards, to be made on 21 September in New York City, include a $250,000 honorarium. The Lasker award is sometimes a prelude to a Nobel Prize in medicine—81 Lasker laureates have gone on to receive that award.