This year's Albert Lasker Medical Research Awards honor three researchers who deciphered a system that tags proteins for destruction and two who helped make blood transfusions safer. In addition, a lifetime achievement award goes to a researcher who made Caenorhabditis elegans almost a household word. The awards, sometimes called "America's Nobels," were announced 17 September.
In the basic research division, ubiquitin researchers Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and Alexander Varshavsky of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena bring home the gold. The researchers recognized that sometimes it's as important for a cell to destroy proteins as it is to build them. Like a kiss of death, the short protein ubiquitin binds to a doomed protein and spurs enzymes to attack it. The ubiquitin system also works with the immune system to destroy microbes.
Their hepatitis C research garnered Harvey J. Alter of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and Michael Houghton of Chiron Corp. in Emeryville, California, the award for clinical research. In 1970, about 30% of people who underwent blood transfusions became infected with the hepatitis C virus, which can cause cirrhosis and liver cancer. Houghton and Alter helped discover the virus and developed a test that allowed contaminated blood to be removed from the blood supply.
The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation also issued a special lifetime achievement award to Sydney Brenner of Molecular Sciences Institute Inc. in Berkeley, California. Brenner's research fills genetics textbooks: He found out that DNA is first copied into messenger RNA when proteins are produced, and discovered how a group of three DNA bases, which he named a codon, dictates which particular amino acid to add to a growing protein chain. He also introduced the tiny nematode worm C. elegans as a model system for tracking the fates of all of an organism's cells.
The awards, which will be presented in New York City on 22 September, come with up to $25,000 and a statuette of the Winged Victory of Samothrace. If you're placing bets on other big-name prizes, Lasker Award winners are a good investment: Of 300-plus winners since 1945, 62 have also won a Nobel Prize.
The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation