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Lasker prize awarded for DNA and cancer discoveries

14 September 2015

By Dr Julia Hill

Appeared in BioNews 819

The 2015 Lasker Awards are being given to three scientists who made ground-breaking discoveries in cancer and genetics, and to the organisation Doctors without Borders for its work on the Ebola crisis.

'This year's Laureates have opened up new frontiers into genetic processes essential to all life; developed novel cancer therapies that unleash the immune system; and worked with great dedication to contain a devastating Ebola epidemic,' said Claire Pomeroy, President of the Lasker Foundation.

'They remind us all that investing in biological sciences and medical research is crucial for our future.'

There are three categories of award: the first, the Basic Medical Research Award is being given to Professor Evelyn Witkin of Rutgers University, and Professor Stephen Elledge of Harvard Medical School for discovering that damaged DNA can self-repair.

Professor Witkin began researching DNA damage caused by ultraviolet light in the 1940s – a decade before the structure of DNA was discovered. She was responsible for proposing the 'SOS hypothesis', that damaged DNA sends out a distress call which triggers a cascade of rescue attempts.

Professor Elledge has been researching the genes and proteins which respond to DNA damage since the 1980s, investigating how they sense damage and attempt to repair it, and their role in cancer.

The second category, the Clinical Medical Research Award is being given to Professor James Allison of the University of Texas, for the discovery of a new cancer treatment called checkpoint blockade therapy.

In the 1990s, Professor Allison developed an antibody which targets the T-cell protein CTLA-4, activating the immune system and using it to attack tumours. Of a group of 5000 people with advanced melanoma who were treated with the antibody, 20 percent were still alive a decade later, in contrast to the usual mortality rate where 50 percent of patients die within a year of diagnosis.

Medecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) is being given the third award, the Bloomberg Public Service Award for its response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa.

The Lasker Awards are one of the most prestigious awards in medicine, and are often referred to as the 'American Nobels'. Since the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation began giving the awards in 1945, 86 recipients have gone on to receive a Nobel Prize.

The awards, which have a $250 000 (£160,000) honorarium, are to recognise the contributions of scientists and public servants to the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of human disease.

The awards will be presented on 18 September in New York City.

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