Immunologists Receive Lasker Award Honors for the Discovery of Lymphocytes Involved in Adaptive Immunity
By Rajaneesh K. Gopinath, Ph.D.
The Lasker awards are one of America’s top biomedical prizes and are conferred by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation since 1945. It recognizes scientists, physicians and public servants for their contribution towards the fundamental understanding of human diseases and therapeutic advances. This year the awards were offered in three different categories; basic research, clinical research, and public service, with an honorarium of US$250,000 in each category.
The Lasker award is often referred to as America’s Nobel Prize, since eighty-seven Lasker laureates have gone on to receive the Nobel Prize until now. On Sep. 20th , the Lasker Foundation announced this year’s winners in three different categories. The Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award were given to immunologists, Dr. Max Cooper of Emory University, and Dr. Jacques Miller of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Australia. The prize was given for their discoveries of two distinct classes of lymphocytes called B and T cells. While the former is produced in the bone marrow and is responsible for producing antibodies against invaders, the latter is produced in the thymus. The different types of T cells help defend the body either through cytokine production or by helping the B cells make antibodies. Therefore, these two cells are called the organizing principle of the adaptive immune system. This groundbreaking discovery completely altered the course of immunology and propelled various advances including cancer immunotherapy.
Herceptin Pioneers Honored in the Clinical Category
The Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award went to a team of three researchers, Dr. H. Michael Shepard, Dr. Dennis J. Slamon, and Dr. Axel Ullrich. Their pioneering work led to the development of Herceptin (Trastuzumab); a humanized monoclonal antibody used for the treatment of breast cancer patients overexpressing the Human Epidermal growth factor Receptor 2 (HER2). In 1985, Ullrich and colleagues at Genentech discovered the oncogene HER2, which was independently found to be amplified in malignancies from a human breast and a salivary gland by two other groups. An ensuing collaborative study with Dr. Slamon at UCLA was instrumental in finding that 30% of 189 breast cancer samples in their tumor library contained more than one copy of the HER2 gene. Further analysis revealed that patients with multiple copies of the gene relapsed and died sooner than others with one copy.
Soon after, Dr. Ullrich teamed up with Dr. Shepard and together they established that HER2 evades killing by TNF-α. They developed a humanized monoclonal antibody, Herceptin that bound to HER2 protein. Together with Dr. Slamon, they conducted successful clinical trials at UCLA and found that Herceptin along with chemotherapy stalled disease progression, so much so that, it was approved by the USFDA in 1998. Since then, it has become a standard treatment for breast cancer serving millions of patients.
Gavi Bags Lasker~Bloomberg Public Service Award
Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance bagged the honors in the third category, for providing sustained access to childhood vaccines at affordable rates and saving millions of lives. It was launched at the World Economic Forum in the year 2000 with $750 million seed money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The organization has helped vaccinate more than 760 million children and saved over 13 million lives in 73 countries.
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