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Stephen Elledge, James Allison, and Evelyn Witkin
Courtesy of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation

Lasker prizes recognize Ebola response, DNA damage, and cancer research

Start placing your Nobel Prize bets. The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation today awarded its annual Medical Research Awards, which are often a prelude to getting that call from Stockholm. More than 30 Lasker winners have ended up with a Nobel Prize over the past 2 decades, according to some counts.

This year’s Laskers spotlight the discovery of how DNA repairs itself, a cancer treatment that “unleashes” the immune system, and a fearless response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa. Each prize carries an award of $250,000 and will be awarded at a ceremony in New York City on 18 September.

The Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award goes to Evelyn M. Witkin, 94, of Rutgers University, New Brunswick, in New Jersey, and Stephen J. Elledge, 59, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston for illuminating the details of how the DNA in our body responds and guards itself against thousands of daily genomic disturbances. Witkin’s research initially discovered what is known as the DNA damage response in bacteria, showing how ultraviolet light triggers mutations in bacterial DNA and, in turn, how certain genes activate to help the bacteria survive the stress. In 1987, Elledge serendipitously discovered that yeast produce more precursors to DNA production when their DNA has been damaged. The discovery led him to explore the molecular pathway of the DNA damage response in other complex models, including humans. Our genomic responses turned out to be very similar to that of yeast.

James P. Allison, 67, of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, received the Lasker~DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for developing a new and highly effective cancer therapy that veers from typical treatments. Instead of targeting specific tumors, Allison focused his research on a particular protein called CTLA-4, which inhibits the immune system’s ability to attack tumor cells. He found that if he blocked CTLA-4, T cells in the immune system were “unleashed” and could attack tumors. Because the treatment wasn’t initially geared toward a particular type of tumor, there’s hope that this strategy could apply to a broad range of cancers. As it stands, the therapy has already helped thousands of patients with advanced melanoma.

The Lasker~Bloomberg Public Service Award has been awarded to Doctors Without Borders for “boldly” spearheading the response to the Ebola outbreak in Africa. Leaders of the humanitarian aid organization delivered decontaminants, protective gear, and treatments that helped tame the outbreak and spur recovery.