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‘American Nobels’ awarded for cancer therapy and DNA damage discoveries

86 laureates have gone on to win a Nobel Prize

Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation

This year's Lasker Awards — often referred to as the "American Nobels" — will go to an immunologist who developed a new cancer therapy, two geneticists who figured out the mechanism that helps organisms survive DNA damage, and to Doctors Without Borders for the organization's efforts during the Ebola outbreak.

Since the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation started giving the awards, in 1945, 86 laureates have gone on to win a Nobel Prize, including 44 in the last three decades. But these aren't just Nobel predictors; the medical awards are prestigious in their own right. The $250,000 prizes were created to recognize the work of scientists and public servants who have made huge contributions in the diagnoses, treatment, and prevention of human diseases.

Basic Medical Research Award:

Geneticists Evelyn Witkin, of Rutgers University, and Stephen Elledge, of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, won the Basic Medical Research Award this year for discoveries relating to how all living organisms cope with DNA damage.

More specifically, Witkin's work established that DNA that’s too damaged to make a copy of itself can send out an SOS signal, triggering a gene to help solve the replication problems. Witkin’s work was in bacteria; Elledge's work built upon that research by finding the same chain of events in more complex organisms. "DNA is self-aware; it can actually sense when there's some insult to its integrity and it transmits that information back to itself," Elledge explained during the conference today.

"It never occurred to me to do anything else."

Faults in the DNA-damage response have been linked to cancer, neurodegenerative disorders, and immune system deficiencies. And these scientists helped other researchers understand that relationship.

"It never occurred to me to do anything else," Witikins said. She started her graduate work in 1941, more than 10 years before the structure of DNA was revealed. "[The work] was continuously fulfilling, and it made me happy, so I kept with it."

"We really need to rethink the way we fund basic research these days."

Now, 20 years into her retirement from active research, Witkins spoke to reporters about problems she sees in the funding of basic science. "What strikes me from what I hear from younger scientists these days is the unwillingness to fund anything slightly risky," she said. "You have to show that something works before you ask for any funding." As a result, many potentially promising discoveries "go down the drain; I think we really need to rethink the way we fund basic research these days."

Clinical Medical Research Award:

James Allison, an immunologist at the University of Texas, takes the Clinical Medical Research Award this year for discovering a new way to restore the body's natural capacity to attack tumor cells. His work led to the development of Bristol Myers-Squibb’s Yervoy, which treats the skin cancer melanoma by blocking a protein that normally limits people's ability to fight cancer cells. About 20 percent of the 5,000 people who’d been treated with the antibody were still alive a decade after treatment — impressive, given that the illness typically kills 50 percent of patients within a year.

"Everybody started crying, I started crying."

Allison told reporters today about a meeting he had with one of the patients who received the treatment. "Everybody started crying, I started crying; it was very humbling to see," he said. "Up until that point it was just numbers, you know, mice. I'm not a physician, I very rarely see the patients, and it really moved me. That's why we all should do this."

Public Service Award:

Doctors Without Borders won the Public Service Award for its contributions to the Ebola outbreak response in West Africa. The humanitarian organization was responsible for treating 33 percent of all the affected patients, according to Jason Cone, executive director at Doctors Without Borders, who spoke during the press conference.

"I would like to pay special tribute to our staff, who have been living day in and day out with Ebola for the last year and a half — many at great personal risk," Cone said, before adding that 14 staff members died from the virus. "Though we recognize their tremendous efforts, we mustn't forget that their sacrifice and the loss of so many lives throughout this outbreak is in many ways borne out of failure."

"The loss of so many lives... is in many ways borne out of failure."

Cone pointed to failures in the international response, and in medical research. Despite recent advancements, scientists still lack efficient and effective ways of diagnosing and treating Ebola. Policymakers have to agree on a strategy for the future, and they must ensure that drugs are developed quickly, he said. "We can't predict when the next epidemic will happen, but we can better plan the R&D agenda."