2005 Lasker Awards announced

Foundation honors work on stem cells, genetic tools, and breast cancer

By | September 19, 2005

Ernest McCulloch and James Till will share the 2005 Mary and Albert Lasker Foundation Award for Basic Medical Research Award for their discovery of the first stem cell, the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation announced yesterday. Edwin Southern and Sir Alec Jeffreys will receive the Clinical Medical Research Award for developing Southern blotting and genetic fingerprinting, respectively. This year's Mary Woodard Lasker Award for Public Service will go to Nancy Brinker for starting the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, devoted to curing breast cancer and increasing public awareness of the disease.

Each of this year's honored discoveries arose from a powerful combination of serendipity and insight, according to the recipients. In the early 1960s, McCulloch, a hematology expert, was working with Till, a biophysicist, on the cellular effects of radiation when he noticed small bumps on the spleens of irradiated mice. Interestingly, the number of bumps was in direct proportion to the number of bone marrow cells they had injected into each mouse. The researchers suspected the formations were clonally derived colonies, and soon found that they had arisen from a single progenitor that differentiated into various types of blood cells. Later that year, they showed that the colony-forming cells were self-renewing.

In fact, the cells were hematopoetic cells, the first stem cells to be identified. "We had the happy situation of accidentally coming across something important" and correctly interpreting it, Till said.

In the course of their work, McCulloch and Till, now University Professor Emeritus and University Professor, respectively, at the University of Toronto, established quantitative, clonal methods for studying stem cells, paving the way for all subsequent adult and embryonic stem cell research.

"They were the ones who validated the notion of a stem cell," said David Scadden, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. McCulloch and Till were chosen "in recognition that the stem cell biology world is starting to explode," he added.

Edwin Southern and Alec Jeffreys will be honored for their contributions to genetic analysis; the former created Southern hybridization in order to distinguish subtle genetic differences between humans, while the latter used this device to develop DNA fingerprinting.

In the 1970s Edwin Southern, now a professor at the University of Oxford, realized that the porous nature of agarose gels could be used to transfer DNA to a filter. The resulting technique has allowed scientists to easily pinpoint and manipulate DNA sequences, thereby uncovering mutations and mapping entire genomes.

A few years later, when Alec Jeffreys was studying gene evolution using what he called "Southern's wonderful blots", he generated an X-ray that represented "biological identification at the DNA level." The film demonstrated that a child's genetic pattern was a composite of the parents' genetic patterns, which were completely distinct. "It was literally two minutes of staring at this xray film in the darkroom," Jeffreys told The Scientist. "Changed my life, changed a lot of people's lives as well."

That same day, Jeffreys made a list of potential uses for this DNA fingerprinting technology, including forensic diagnostics, conservation biology, and bone marrow transplantation. He said that he did not anticipate the tool's importance in identifying disaster victims, nor did he predict that it would help resolve paternity disputes "live on air."

"I couldn't have done this without Ed Southern's technology," said Jeffreys, now Royal Society Wolfson Research Professor at the University of Leicester. "And I think Ed's quite pleased that the technology has been put to such good use."

Despite not being overtly clinical, Southern's and Jeffreys' work received the clinical research award because of the "implications for identifying aspects about human biology," said 1985 Lasker Award winner Joseph L. Goldstein, who chairs the international jury of researchers that picks the research award winners.

Nancy Brinker will receive her award as the president of the Komen Foundation, which she started almost 25 years ago in honor of the sister she lost to breast cancer. With over 100 U.S. and international affiliates, the foundation has raised $750 million towards research, education, early diagnosis, and treatment efforts. "It's about honoring the work that so many, many people have done," Brinker told The Scientist. "If I've had a part in leading the effort over the years…I'm very pleased."

The Medical Research Awards, now celebrating its 60th anniversary, were created as a birthday gift from Mary Lasker to her advertising magnate husband Albert. The list of winners, which includes 70 scientists who went on to win the Nobel Prize, provides an "incredible historical record of medical research over the past 60 years," said Goldstein.

The awards will be presented during a luncheon ceremony at the Pierre Hotel in New York City on Friday, September 23.

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