The winners of this year’s Lasker Awards are C. David Allis of Rockefeller University and Michael Grunstein of the University of California, Los Angeles, for discoveries about the proteins that package DNA; John “Iain” Glen, formerly a pharmaceutical researcher at AstraZeneca, for developing the drug propofol; and Yale University’s Joan Steitz for leadership and research throughout her career, the Lasker Foundation announced today (September 11). The Laskers, prestigious awards often used to forecast future Nobel Prize winners, each come with a cash prize of $250,000.
At one time, Grunstein recalled in a teleconference with the media today, most researchers assumed that because the histone proteins that package DNA are highly conserved among vastly different species, they must not be very interesting. But in the 1980s, “we found that they’re very important, not only as packing material, but as proteins that regulate gene activity,” he says.
Allis and colleagues would later uncover more details about how this regulation works, including an enzyme that removes acetyl tags on histones, changing genes’ expression levels. The work helped lay the foundation for developing drugs for cancer and other conditions that involve aberrant histone tags.
In an interview with Science, Glen, a former veterinarian, recalls how it took 13 years to develop propofol, now one of the world’s most-used anesthetics. “I remember knowing it was special when I saw how quickly the animals recovered after they woke up,” he tells the magazine. “A whole pen of pigs could be out cold one moment, and then digging into their food the next.”
Steitz’s award recognizes not a specific achievement, but her “four decades of leadership in biomedical science,” according to the Lasker’s statement. She is known for her discovery that small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs) are key players in splicing finished mRNA transcripts within cells, and for other RNA-related work.
She has also been an advocate for women in science. “When I started out being excited by science—but seeing that there weren’t any women scientists—I thought I had no prospects whatsoever,” she tells The New York Times. Her aim, she says, is to be “a good citizen and try to help women and other underrepresented people to fulfill their potential.”