In a ceremony on September 21 the winners of the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research will receive their prizes. This year the award is to be presented to three scientists who revolutionised the field of medical research by developing animal models of human diseases. Not only has this enabled a greater understanding of disorders such as atherosclerosis, cystic fibrosis and cancer but has also elucidated the mechanisms behind fundamental cellular processes such as the immune system response to microbial invasion.
Mario Capecchi from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, University of Utah and Oliver Smithies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Medical School were the first workers to successfully target specific genes by homologous recombination. This enabled the subsequent development of 'knockout' mice — invaluable in understanding the function of a particular gene — and also allows precise changes to be made to selected genes. Martin Evans of the Cardiff School of Biosciences, University of Cardiff, led the search for the embryonic-carcinoma (EC) cells that closely resemble embryonic stem (ES) cells, and which are capable of differentiating into all tissue types.
By combining the two technologies it is now possible to engineer EC and ES cells with specific mutations or deletions that are capable of generating mice with the desired genetic alteration in every cell.
At the same ceremony the Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research will be awarded to the
These awards are often referred to as the 'American Nobels', and indeed 63 of the previous Lasker laureates have subsequently been awarded that most prestigious of scientific recognitions.