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£22 million life sciences prize launched by Facebook and Google founders

25 February 2013
Appeared in BioNews 694

Eleven scientists have each won £2 million as part of a prize to recognise the achievements of biomedical researchers, launched by entrepreneurs including Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Sergey Brin.

'I believe this new prize will shine a light on the extraordinary achievements of the outstanding minds in the field of life sciences, enhance medical innovation, and ultimately become a platform for recognizing future discoveries', says Art Levinson, Chairman of Apple, Genentech and the foundation responsible for the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

Founding sponsors of the prize include Brin's wife and co-founder of biotechnology company 23andMe, Anne Wojcicki, venture capitalist Yuri Milner and Zuckerberg's wife Priscilla Chan.

The prize will not fund research but is aimed at drawing attention to the progress of scientists today to try to incentivise others to pursue research. Zuckerberg told CNN: 'This prize isn't really about the people who are winning it today. It's about younger kids trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up'.

This year's winners include Nobel laureate Professor Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University for his work on induced pluripotent stem cells and Professor Hans Clevers, President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences for his work on stem cells and cancer.

The winners will form a selection committee to pick next year's winners who will likewise receive £2 million or $3 million each; described by Milner to Forbes as 'a good round number'. Although he would be 'very happy if someone comes in and does $10 million or more'.

'It's a lot of money, yes. But the people who make game-changing contributions are often scientists who toil without much recognition or fanfare and without much compensation. To my mind these are the true heroes', said Levinson to the Guardian.

Recipients of the prize were taken aback, reports the Guardian: 'I almost fell over. I didn't even know this prize existed', said prize winner Professor Lewis Cantley, Director of the Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medical College and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, who won for his work on the metabolism of cancer cells.

The prize has been met with some criticism for its choice of winners: 'Breakthrough scientific research doesn't come from just a handful of scientists who have already made a name for themselves, but from collaborations between many researchers', writes Dr Eva Amsen, online editor for the journal Development, on the Node. 'Preserving a broad network of researchers may in the long run be more rewarding than only awarding the top talent'.

Nominations for next year's Breakthrough Prize can be made online by anyone. Nominated candidates can be of any age and are eligible to win the prize more than once. All winners will give public talks to explain their research, which will be made freely available online.

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