Stem Cell Pioneers Honored at Lasker Awards

This year’s Lasker Awards were presented to 6 individuals, two of whom are pioneers in the field of stem cell technology.

Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Japan, the first person to develop iPS (induced pluripotent stem) cell technology, received the prestigious award as did Dr. John Gurdon of Cambridge University in England, who pioneered the SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer) laboratory procedure. Among the remaining 4 recipients were 3 scientists who led the development of the cancer drug Gleevec, sold by Novartis of Switzerland, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

According to Maria Freire, president of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, and in specific reference to Drs. Gurdon and Yamanaka, "These two pieces of research allow us to understand different aspects of stem cells. I think it could lead to personalized replacement therapy to fix cells or damaged tissue."

Dr. Gurdon was the first person, in the late 1950s, to develop the technique that is now known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). Taking cells from the gut of a frog, he inserted the nucleus of one cell into a denucleated egg, thereby creating a tadpole with the same genotype of the original frog. Ian Wilmut’s cloning of Dolly the Sheep in 1996 was directly based upon such work, as was Dr. Yamanaka’s achievements with iPS cells a decade later. Both Drs. Gurdon and Yamanaka share the Lasker Award category for basic medical research.

As is not uncommon with pioneering medical and scientific advances, both Drs. Gurdon and Yamanaka overturned conventional wisdom. As Dr. Gurdon, now 76, describes, "The prevailing thought was that as cells differentiate, they lose their ability to generate other cells of any kind." His research demonstrated that such dogma was clearly incorrect.

More recently, Dr. Yamanaka achieved a similar accomplishment as Dr. Gurdon did, but without the use of an egg, on which Dr. Gurdon commented, "We did it by transferring the nucleus of a cell. Amazingly, he does it by adding genes to the cells and some of them go back to being embryo cells." After his accomplishment in the 1950s, Dr. Gurdon thought that it would eventually be possible to clone entire animals, although he adds, "but I did not expect it would be possible to do what Yamanaka did." Now, the procedure that Dr. Yamanaka pioneered has been repeated in stem cell laboratories throughout the world, and is also being used by a number of pharmaceutical companies in drug development. As Dr. Yamanaka describes, "Everyone can do it. You don’t have to have human embryos and you can make stem cells directly from patients." In addition to directing the Center for Induced Pluripotent Stem (IPS) Cell Research and Applications at Kyoto University, Dr. Yamanaka is also senior investigator at the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease in San Francisco.

Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York City and the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News, was awarded the Mary Woodard Lasker Award for Public Service in recognition of his numerous efforts to improve public health in the nation’s most densely populated metroplex. Among other accomplishments, Mayor Bloomberg was recognized by the Lasker judges for his advocacy against handguns as well as his eradication of smoking and trans-fats throughout NYC. According to an official Lasker Foundation statement, there are currently 300,000 fewer New Yorkers who smoke today than in 2002, when Bloomberg first took office. As Ms. Freire formally stated, "Michael Bloomberg understood the impact of second-hand smoking on workers, of smoking on individuals, of trans-fats on heart conditions and obesity. It highlights the courage of an individual to look at scientific data and make policies based on the data for the betterment of the health of people." As further described on the Lasker Foundation’s website, Mayor Bloomberg was chosen for the Award, "For employing sound science in political decision making; setting a world standard for the public’s health as an impetus for government action; leading the way to reduce the scourge of tobacco use; and advancing public health through enlightened philanthropy." This is not the first time that Mayor Bloomberg has been honored for his work in this field, as the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health at his alma mater is named in his honor.

The award for clinical medical research was shared by Dr. Brian Druker of the Oregon Health and Science University, Dr. Charles Sawyers of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and Dr. Nicholas Lyndon, formerly of Novartis, for their collaborative development of Gleevec, which had sales of $3.7 billion in 2008 alone, for the treatment of blood cancers. The drug has proven to be especially effective as a treatment for chronic myelogenous leukemia, which otherwise is a fatal condition but which becomes manageable with Gleevec, which allows patients "to live with the disease as you do with diabetes or high blood pressure," as Ms. Freire explained.

Established in 1942 by the advertising executive Albert Lasker and his wife Mary, a health advocate, the Lasker prizes are awarded every year to living persons who have made significant contributions to medical science or who have performed public service on behalf of medicine. As described on the Foundation’s website, "The Lasker Awards are among the most respected science prizes in the world. Since 1945, the Awards Program has recognized the contributions of scientists, physicians, and public servants who have made major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure, and prevention of human disease. Lasker Awards often presage future recognition by the Nobel committee, so they have become popularly known as ‘America’s Nobels’. Seventy-six Lasker laureates have received the Nobel Prize, including 28 in the last two decades."

Additionally, the Lasker Awards include a cash prize of $250,000 for each category.

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