Lasker Laureates Make Up Impressive Biomedical Roster

The Albert Lasker Medical Research Awards officially turn 50 this year and, by almost any measure, have a luster unsurpassed among American awards for biomedical research and second internationally only to the near-twice-as-old Nobel Prizes. The reason is obvious to many members of the jury and previous award winners. NEW ROLE: Lasker laureate Joseph L. Goldstein takes over as jury chair. "No award is better than its recipients," says Joseph L. Goldstein, winner of a Lasker in 1985 and a Nobe

Oct 16, 1995
Billy Goodman
The Albert Lasker Medical Research Awards officially turn 50 this year and, by almost any measure, have a luster unsurpassed among American awards for biomedical research and second internationally only to the near-twice-as-old Nobel Prizes. The reason is obvious to many members of the jury and previous award winners.

Joseph Goldstein NEW ROLE: Lasker laureate Joseph L. Goldstein takes over as jury chair.

"No award is better than its recipients," says Joseph L. Goldstein, winner of a Lasker in 1985 and a Nobel Prize the same year for discovering the basic mechanisms controlling cholesterol metabolism. Goldstein this year assumes the chairmanship of the Lasker awards jury.

The roster of Lasker laureates reads like a Who's Who of modern biomedical science: Oswald Avery, Edwin Krebs, Peyton Rous, Barbara McClintock, Rosalyn Yalow, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, James Watson and Francis Crick, J. Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus, among many illustrious others. Goldstein, chairman of the department of molecular genetics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, adds that the Lasker awards stand out because of their long tradition and their ability-by widespread publicity surrounding their conferral-to make the process of science better known to the public.

The awards are bestowed by the New York-based Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, created by the Laskers to raise awareness of disease and the importance of funding research to improve public health. The Basic Research and Clinical Research awards were first given in 1946. Albert Lasker, an advertising executive, died soon after; Mary Lasker died last year at the age of 93.

Certainly the monetary prize accompanying the award is not a significant one, compared to the nearly $1 million bestowed upon some Nobelists. Until a few years ago, winners received-or shared -- $15,000. That has since been raised to $25,000. (This year, the five winners in the basic science category split $50,000.)

Eric Kandel Eric Kandel

Neurobiologist Eric Kandel of Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons won a Lasker award in 1983 for applying cell biological techniques to the study of learning and memory. Kandel, who like Goldstein is a regular member of the Lasker jury, comments that it is the "unanimous sense" of the jury "to select science that is highly original, influential, reliable, and profound; research that has the broadest impact and the greatest originality; that has opened up new areas, solved major problems, or allowed scientists to see problems from new perspectives."

One often-cited measure of the Lasker awards' importance is the number of winners who have gone on to win a Nobel Prize. So far, 52 have, roughly one out of every five Lasker winners. Goldstein, for one, does not find that statistic terribly surprising. "Original pieces of work, that open up new areas, stand out," he notes. "It's not that hard to identify what they are."

Another factor making the notion of the Laskers as "Nobel predictors" less remarkable is the reluctance of the Lasker jury to award its prize to someone who has already received a Nobel. Jordan Gutterman, the director of the Lasker awards program and chairman of the department of clinical immunology and biological therapy at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, explains that "if a person has won a Nobel Prize, the jury doesn't feel it's necessary to give them a Lasker."

Indeed, only two scientists have won the Nobel before the Lasker: Karl Landsteiner (Nobel in 1930, Lasker posthumously in 1946, both for discovery of human blood groups) and Albert Szent-Gyorgyi (Nobel in 1937 for "his discoveries in connection with the biological combustion processes"; Lasker in 1954 for "distinguished research achievements in the field of cardiovascular diseases").

Miachel DeBakey STEPPING DOWN: Michael DeBakey has retired as Lasker jury chairman after three decades.

One of the distinguishing features of the awards is that they are given for both basic and clinical research. That reflects Mary Lasker's interest and influence, observes former jury chairman Michael DeBakey, chancellor of the Baylor College of Medicine. She intended the awards to focus attention, he says, on science and what it has achieved. It was her "very wise" decision to divide the awards into basic and clinical awards because basic science is the basis for clinical science, maintains DeBakey, a 1963 Lasker winner for achievements "inaugurating a new era in cardiovascular surgery."

"If you can recognize good basic work as having potential for clinical application, even though it's not yet ready, then you emphasize the value of that kind of science," he says.

The awards bear Albert Lasker's name, and the foundation is named for both of them. But Mary Lasker's influence has been credited in increasing federal funds for biomedical research and in focusing attention on the importance of basic research as well as clinical medicine in saving lives, alleviating suffering, and prolonging the prime of life. Her success partially stemmed from a perceived lack of self-interest on her part, according to Terry Lierman of Washington, D.C. -- based Capitol Associates, a government -- relations firm hired by the Lasker Foundation. "Everyone knew that she had nothing to gain," he told The Scientist upon Mary Lasker's death (B. Spector, The Scientist, March 21, 1994, page 3).

Widely lauded within the scientific community, despite their relatively meager cash prize, the Lasker awards nevertheless have detractors. One is Cecil Fox, president of Molecular Histology Labs Inc. in Gaithersburg, Md., and a former National Institutes of Health scientist. He regards the Lasker awards as being "highly predictable" and "the results of establishment decisions." But no other scientist interviewed for this article finds that problematic. Phillip Sharp, a geneticist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and winner of both a Lasker (in 1988) and a Nobel (in 1993) for his work on RNA processing, points out that the prize is not intended as an "initiator" for up-and-coming scientists. It is for mature work that is widely appreciated.

Nominations for a Lasker award come from throughout the biomedical community. The jury typically numbers about 20. DeBakey, who relinquished his post to Goldstein after the presentation of this year's awards, had been the chairman for 30 years; other members serve for varying lengths of time. If necessary, additional scientists are added to the jury to be sure there is expertise in the fields of all the nominees. Voting by secret ballot continues until a consensus builds for one candidate or a group of candidates.

The most difficult part of the process, according to several scientists who have served on the jury, is determining priority: How many people should be recognized for a particular discovery? Robert Tjian, a Lasker juror and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator in the department of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, says the awards are for a lifetime of work, not just one finding. Given that, he says, "it's not difficult to see who is responsible for a high level of science being sustained over a body of work." Nevertheless, how many groups should be recognized is tricky, he notes, citing this year's basic research award to five group leaders for a fundamental advance in immunology.

Sol SnyderSolomon Snyder

Occasionally, there are scientists who feel left out. In 1978, three researchers were awarded a Lasker for work on opiate receptors and enkephalins, including Solomon Snyder, now director of the department of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. One of Snyder's graduate students, Candace Pert, reportedly felt her contributions had been overlooked, especially because one of the other winners was a junior scientist. That winner, John Hughes, was, however, an independent assistant professor, Snyder points out. "If every graduate student and postdoc working on a project shared prizes, prizes would be diluted," he says. Pert could not be reached for comment.

Nevertheless, as a Lasker juror, Snyder acknowledges that the "complicated thing in picking prize winners in some fields is when there are 15 labs and you have to pick out one." That was not a problem in awarding the 1994 basic research prize, which went to Stanley Prusiner, a professor of neurology and biochemistry at the University of California, San Francisco, for his identification of a new class of pathogens called prions. "He was the field," notes Snyder.

Stanley Prusiner PAST HONOREE: UC-San Francisco's Stanley Prusiner's work on prions, once considered to be controversial, is now viewed as mainstream.

Prusiner's work over the last 20 years has received a healthy dose of criticism and continues to receive some from scientists who believe viruses are responsible for the pathogenicity attributed to prions. The Lasker jurors did not view their choice as especially bold, however. Prusiner's work "is not considered controversial anymore," says Columbia's Kandel. Others obviously agree: Prusiner won a Gairdner Foundation International Award, also widely considered to be a "Nobel predictor," in 1993.

One of the more controversial recent winners was University of Paris endocrinologist Etienne-Emile Baulieu, who received the clinical research award in 1989. Baulieu, then at INSERM, the French biomedical agency, is best known for developing the abortion drug RU 486, and the Lasker jurors' choice was criticized by anti-abortion groups in a New York Times report (Sept. 28, 1989, page A24). Jury chairman DeBakey says that Baulieu won his award primarily for his advances in understanding the biology of fertility and not because he developed a pill useful for abortion.

Joran Gutterman DIRECTOR: Texas immunologist Jordan Gutterman heads the Lasker awards program.

For the jurors, difficult decisions are a sign of robust science. Jordan Gutterman hopes that hard choices continue for the Lasker awards. "What impresses me is the health of biomedical science worldwide," he says. "One of my concerns is, will that continue? I hope in 10 years we don't see a decline in healthiness of all these fields."

Billy Goodman, a freelance science writer based in Montclair, N.J., is online at

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(The Scientist, Vol:9, #20, pg.1 , October 16, 1995)
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