Kazutoshi Mori (left) and Peter Walter won this year’s Lasker Award for basic medical research.

Kazutoshi Mori (left) and Peter Walter won this year’s Lasker Award for basic medical research.

Courtesy of the Lasker Foundation

Laskers awarded for work on protein folding, deep brain stimulation

Five researchers who study a cellular system for fixing misfolded proteins, deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease, and breast cancer genetics have won this year’s prestigious Lasker Awards for biomedical research.

The Lasker Foundation announced today that its award for basic medical research goes to Kazutoshi Mori, 56, of Kyoto University in Japan and Peter Walter, 59, of the University of California, San Francisco, for their work on what’s known as the unfolded protein response. Starting in the late 1980s, their labs revealed steps in how the endoplasmic reticulum, the cell’s factory for processing secreted and membrane proteins, deals with proteins whose linear sequence of amino acids hasn’t folded into a proper 3D shape. After detecting a harmful buildup of unfolded proteins, the endoplasmic reticulum sends a signal to the nucleus that activates genes that work to fix the problem. The research has had implications for diseases such as cystic fibrosis and retinitis pigmentosa. The Lasker basic research award often precedes a Nobel Prize in medicine; 86 Lasker laureates have gone on to win a Nobel.

The Lasker prize for clinical research has been awarded to Alim Louis Benabid, 72, of Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble, France, and Mahlon DeLong, 76, of Emory University in Atlanta. Also beginning in the 1980s, they showed in animals and people that surgically implanting in the brain a device that stimulates the subthalamic nucleus can alleviate tremors and other symptoms of people with Parkinson’s disease. In 2002, U.S. regulators approved the technique for treating advanced Parkinson’s disease.

Mary-Claire King, 68, of the University of Washington, Seattle, won the Lasker special achievement award for her discovery of the BRCA1 breast cancer risk gene in 1990 and for developing DNA analytic techniques for identifying members of a family. First used to help find children separated from their parents during Argentina’s 1976 to 1983 military dictatorship, the approach has since identified human remains and victims of natural disasters and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.