This year’s Lasker prizes are going to a molecular biologist who figured out how cells regulate growth and two researchers who developed a vaccine for the cancer-causing human papilloma virus (HPV). Another honoree is Planned Parenthood, the nonprofit organization that provides reproductive health care in the United States and beyond. The award comes as the group faces efforts by Republicans in Congress and the White House to cut its federal funding because it provides abortion services.
The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation announced today its three annual prizes, each of which comes with a $250,000 award. Regarded as the United States’s most prestigious biomedical research awards, the Laskers often precede a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: Eighty-seven Lasker laureates have gone on to win a Nobel.
The 2017 prize for basic medical research was awarded to molecular biologist Michael Hall, 64, of the University of Basel’s Biozentrum in Switzerland for discovering how a group of proteins called target of rapamycin (TOR) direct cell growth. In yeast, humans, and many other organisms, TOR proteins sense the availability of nutrients and other growth signals, such as hormones, and regulate cell size accordingly. “I think of TOR as the brain of the cell,” Hall said in a video produced by the Lasker Foundation. Until the early 1990s, researchers assumed that cell growth was a process that happened spontaneously in the presence of raw materials, without any control mechanism. Hall’s work challenging that idea got a sometimes chilly reception, he told Science, because his finding weren’t easy to communicate and they upended a long-standing scientific paradigm. Today, researchers recognize that TOR growth regulators are involved in a multitude of processes, including aging, brain development, and diseases such as cancer and diabetes.
The Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award goes to two researchers at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland—Douglas Lowy, 75, and John Schiller, 64—for developing a vaccine against HPV, a virus that can cause cancers of the cervix, vagina, penis, or anus, which kill more than 250,000 people every year. The virus is commonly transmitted through sex, and a few viral strains can cause cells to grow out of control if they persist for long enough. While investigating how HPV causes cancer, Lowy and Schiller figured out how to assemble proteins found on its outer surface into viruslike particles that do not cause cancer and can be safely injected into people to trigger an immune response against HPV infections. At first most drug companies showed no interest in the duo’s discovery, because previous attempts at developing a vaccine had been unsuccessful. “They’re probably kicking themselves now because it’s a multibillion-dollar drug,” Schiller said in a Lasker Foundation interview.
The duo noted that the discovery was the result of decades of curiosity-driven basic research. “When people were making those discoveries, they were not thinking of the HPV vaccine,” Schiller told Science. Since its approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2006, the HPV vaccine has been introduced in more than 50 countries. But in the United States it is still underutilized: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just 43% of teens get the full recommended dose.
HPV vaccine administration is one of the services offered by Planned Parenthood, the winner of this year’s Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award. The foundation said the New York City–based organization was recognized for “providing essential health services and reproductive care to millions of women for more than a century.” In addition to providing family planning services, Planned Parenthood helps treat sexually transmitted infections, and screens for breast and cervical cancer. With almost 650 clinics in the United States, the organization served more than 2 million people in 2015. Planned Parenthood also partners with organizations in Africa and Latin America to provide reproductive care.
In the United States, the organization has long drawn the ire of many conservative Republicans because it provides abortion services, and is sometimes involved in providing tissue from aborted fetuses to scientists. Although federal law prohibits the group from using federal funds to provide abortions, President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress have proposed preventing the group from receiving federal payments for other services, including mammograms and contraception.
During a Lasker Foundation teleconference, Planned Parenthood’s president, Cecile Richards, said efforts to help women in the United States get better access to contraception have had a noticeable impact: The rates of abortion and unintended pregnancy in the United States are at their lowest levels since 1973, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion.
The winners will formally receive their prizes at a ceremony in New York City on 15 September.