2021 Lasker Awards honor work in mRNA vaccines, neuroscience and more


The Lasker Awards for 2021, announced on Friday, went to scientists whose work was crucial for Covid-19 vaccines, scientists who discovered how to control the triggering of neurons with beams of light, and a researcher whose influential work and leadership changed medical science.

The awards are named after Mary and Alfred Lasker. Ms Lasker was a medical research activist and her husband is sometimes considered the father of modern advertising. They are among the most prestigious awards in medicine, and dozens of Lasker laureates have received the Nobel Prize. The recipients of each category share a prize of $ 250,000. The awards were not given in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Katalin Kariko, Senior Vice President of BioNTech, and Dr. Drew Weissman, Professor of Vaccine Research at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, shared this year’s Lasker-DeBakey Prize for Clinical Medical Research.

In retrospect, their breakthrough in 2005 was evident when Dr Kariko and Dr Weissman proudly published a startling discovery they made about messenger RNA, also known as mRNA, which provides instructions for cells to make. proteins. Scientists have noticed that when they add mRNA to cells, cells instantly destroy it. But they could prevent this destruction by modifying the mRNA slightly. When they added the altered mRNA to the cells, it could briefly trick the cells into making the protein of their choice.

But at the time, most scientists were not interested in the technology, which would become the cornerstone of mRNA vaccines, because they believed there were better ways to immunize.

Their article, published in Immunity in 2005 after multiple rejections by other journals, received little attention. The discovery seemed esoteric.

Dr Weissman and Dr Kariko have awarded grants to continue their work. Their candidacies were rejected. Finally, two biotech companies noticed the work: Moderna, in the United States, and BioNTech, in Germany. The companies have studied the use of mRNA vaccines against influenza, cytomegalovirus and other diseases, but none have emerged from clinical trials for years.

Then the coronavirus appeared. The surprisingly effective vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech use the modification discovered by Dr Kariko and Dr Weissman.

The two scientists are now receiving awards for their discovery, including the $ 3 million Breakthrough Prize and the $ 1 million Albany Prize.

Dr Kariko said in an interview this week that for her the greatest reward is having played a role in the development of a vaccine that has saved so many lives.

“For me, it is enough to know that I have contributed, to know that so many people have been helped,” she said.

Dr Weissman pointed out in an interview this week that while he and Dr Kariko are honored, the work leading up to mRNA vaccines involved more than just modifying the mRNA.

“People should know that it was not just a one-time experiment that we did and that the vaccine was made in 10 months,” he said. “We did the modified mRNA and we get the top honors, but the vaccines are based on over 20 years of work by Kati and I and hundreds if not thousands of other scientists.”

Karl Deisseroth from Stanford, Peter Hegemann from Humboldt University in Berlin and Dieter Oesterhelt from the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Martinsried, Germany shared the Albert Lasker Prize for Basic Medical Research.

A 2007 experiment by Dr Deisseroth and his students seemed miraculous. They passed a blue light through an optical fiber that they had implanted in the brain of a rat. It was directed to a neuron that controls the movement of the whiskers. The mustaches were shaking. Dr. Deisseroth could control the actions of rats with a narrow beam of light.

But this experience has been built on years of work.

The path began in the late 1960s when Dr Oesterhelt became intrigued by the bacteria that live in salt marshes. The bacteria are enclosed in a purple membrane which, according to Dr. Oesterhelt in 1971, contains a protein that detects light. In response to light, the protein pumps ions, one by one, into the cell. It was intriguing because when nerves fire up, they achieve a similar result by opening a tunnel in their membranes that lets in ions.

Another leap forward came in 1991 when Dr Hegemann, studying algae capable of detecting and swimming towards light, reported that algae use a protein related to that of Dr Oesterhelt’s bacteria. In the presence of light, the protein opens a tunnel in the algal membrane, allowing ions to enter.

Dr Deisseroth believed that these proteins, by opening ion channels, would convert light into electrical activity. So he started experimenting to see if adding genes for photosensitive proteins to nerve cells could trigger them to trigger. This led to the experiment with rat whiskers, one of the first in a cascade of studies showing that nervous arousal could be controlled by light.

Now, using photosensitive proteins they add to cells, scientists around the world are turning on and silencing neurons in animals to study behaviors ranging from hunger and thirst to anxiety and parenthood.

Dr Deisseroth, who is also a psychiatrist, said in an interview this week that his message to the public is that the work “shows the value of pure basic science which is not necessarily guided by immediate impact.”

No one could initially have known that studies of algae and bacteria would allow researchers to know which behaviors would be controlled by individual neurons. But the promise is huge, said Dr Deisseroth, adding that with this kind of information about psychiatric disorders someday “you can design any kind of therapy.”

David Baltimore, now Professor Emeritus at Caltech, received the Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Sciences.

Dr. Baltimore burst into the pantheon of molecular biology in 1970 when he made an astonishing discovery. A rule proposed by Francis Crick known as Central Dogma was wrong. He said that the information in cells goes in only one direction – DNA directs the formation of RNA which directs the formation of proteins. But, Dr Baltimore discovered that the flow of information could also shift from RNA to DNA.

In 1975, at just 37, Dr. Baltimore shared a Nobel Prize for his work.

It was only the beginning of his career, which led him to major discoveries in oncology and immunology and to occupy scientific leadership positions. Dr Baltimore was the founding director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at MIT, president of Rockefeller University, and president of Caltech.

During the AIDS crisis, Dr. Baltimore served as co-chair of an influential National Academy of Sciences committee that helped galvanize research and a public health campaign.

His greatest satisfaction, he said in an interview this week, has been his work in basic science, both the discoveries and their effects on medicine and society.

“By focusing on basic science, I was able to have an impact on cancer, on AIDS, on immunology. And it’s extremely rewarding, ”said Dr. Baltimore. “This proves the adage that basic science is the seed corn of societal impact.”


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