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Bruce Alberts

Bruce Alberts won the 2016 Lasker~Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science.

Christopher Reiger

Lasker prizes recognize oxygen discovery, hepatitis C treatment, and a lifetime of DNA research

The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation announced its annual awards today, honoring research into how humans adapt to available oxygen, how the hepatitis C virus (HCV) replicates, and how cells copy DNA. Often referred to as “America’s Nobels,” the prizes highlight scientific work that helps diagnose and treat human disease. Winning a Lasker is sometimes a precursor to winning a Nobel Prize.

For its basic research award, the foundation picked the work of biomedical researchers William Kaelin Jr. of Harvard Medical School in Boston, Peter Ratcliffe of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, and Gregg Semenza of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. The researchers dug into the complexities of a seemingly basic life function—breathing. More specifically, how a genetic transcription factor called hypoxia-inducible factor 1 (HIF-1) helps our bodies adapt to low-oxygen environments, and how modifying that factor could help treat anemia and cancers.

“You can think of HIF as being the conductor for a symphony,” Kaelin says in a Lasker Foundation interview. HIF regulates genes that dictate how the human body responds to a lack of oxygen, he said, but it can also affect genes that determine whether a cell divides and how that cell can affect neighboring cells. Therapies could seek to increase or decrease the amount of HIF to deliver more oxygen to anemic cells or suppress cancerous growth.

“The important thing is to have ideas and test them rapidly, ruthlessly and efficiently,” Ratcliffe says.

Work on the cure for HCV—by Ralf Bartenschlager of the University Hospital Heidelberg in Germany, Charles Rice of The Rockefeller University in New York City, Michael Sofia of Arbutus Biopharma, headquartered in Barnaby, Canada—received the Lasker Foundation’s clinical research award.

“We are now in a position to potentially eradicate hepatitis C,” Sofia, based in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, says in a Lasker Foundation interview. The recent release of drugs such as sofosbuvir has marked the first successful and nontoxic treatments for hepatitis C—treatments which came directly from the work of Bartenschlager, Rice, and Sofia. The three worked independently to conquer obstacles to replicating HCV in the lab and then producing a cure that the human body wouldn’t reject. “It leaves the molecular virologists that have been working on hepatitis C for 25-plus years wondering what they should do next,” Rice jokes.

The foundation’s special achievement award went to University of California, San Francisco, biochemist Bruce Alberts for his research into DNA replication and his work on reforming science education worldwide.

“Science should really be taught as a way of problem-solving that works in any part of your life,” Alberts says in a Lasker Foundation interview. “It’s not a body of facts to be memorized.”

In 1970, Alberts’s research showed how proteins work together in cells to power the DNA replication process that is crucial for all life. Later on, he helped write the influential textbook Molecular Biology of the Cell that is still used today. Alberts went on to serve as president of the National Academy of Sciences and editor of the journal Science, as well as a White House science envoy to Indonesia. He was awarded the National Medal of Science in 2012 by President Barack Obama. Alberts continues to push to make scientific inquiry a larger part of societies worldwide. “The world’s a very dangerous place without rational thinking,” Alberts says.