The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation today named three scientists and Planned Parenthood as winners of its annual awards for work that has advanced the potential translation of basic science into addressing unmet medical needs, as well as for public service.

The awards will be presented on Friday in New York City.

Michael N. Hall, Ph.D., an investigator at the Biozentrum of the University of Basel, won the 2017 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for his discovery of the nutrient-activated target of rapamycin (TOR) proteins and their central role in the metabolic control of cell growth and size through activation and inactivation of different signaling pathways.

Disruption of the TOR network has been linked to the development of cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases and has been implicated in a wide range of age-related disorders. Dr. Hall has demonstrated that TOR is found in two distinct protein complexes, explaining the different effects of TOR signaling in the cell.

“I am extraordinarily pleased and deeply grateful that the Lasker Foundation has honored our fundamental research with this award,” Dr. Hall said in a statement published by the University of Basel. “I hope that our work will pave the way for new scientific discoveries and allow the development of effective cancer therapies.”

The work of Dr. Hall “has led to a fundamental change in how one thinks of cell growth and has provided critical information for the development of anticancer drugs,” the University added in its statement.

Dr. Hall, 64, was born in Puerto Rico. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and the University of California, San Francisco. Hall joined the Biozentrum of the University of Basel as an assistant professor in 1987 and has been conducting research and teaching as a full professor of biochemistry since 1992.

Enabling HPV Vaccine Development

Two researchers based at the NIH’s National Cancer Institute—Douglas R. Lowy, M.D., and John T. Schiller, Ph.D.—have won the 2017 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for technological advances that enabled development of human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines for prevention of cervical cancer and other tumors caused by HPVs.

Dr. Lowy is the NCI’s acting director and chief of the Laboratory of Cellular Oncology, and served as deputy director of the NCI from 2010 to 2015. Dr. Schiller is deputy chief for NCI’s Laboratory of Cellular Oncology, an NIH Distinguished Investigator, and head of the lab’s Neoplastic Disease Section.

Research by Drs. Lowy and Schiller on animal and human papillomaviruses enabled the development of a vaccine against the high-risk HPV16 type, which accounts for a large percentage of HPV malignancies. They showed that the vaccine is effective in animals and conducted the first clinical trial of an HPV16 vaccine in humans, demonstrating its safety and ability to trigger a strong immune response.

Merck & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) applied Lowy and Schiller's findings to develop vaccines that combat HPV16 as well as additional HPV types. Merck’s Gardisil™ and GSK’s Cervarix™ vaccines won FDA approvals in 2006 and 2009, respectively, for prevention of cervical precancer and cancer in women.

As of 2015, 59 million women worldwide and 20 million in North America had received an HPV vaccine.

Drs. Lowy and Schiller were honored for taking what the Lasker Foundation termed “a bold but calculated approach toward a major public health problem whose solution required them to vault formidable hurdles.”

“They devised a blueprint for several safe and effective vaccines that promise to slash the incidence of cervical cancer and mortality, the fourth most common cancer among women worldwide, as well as other malignancies and disorders that arise from human papillomaviruses,” the Foundation observed.

Dr. Lowy, 75, received his M.D. from New York University School of Medicine in 1968 and trained in internal medicine at Stanford University and dermatology at Yale. He has directed a research laboratory at NCI since 1975, after receiving training as a research associate in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Dr. Schiller, 64, received his Ph.D. in 1982 from the Department of Microbiology of the University of Washington in Seattle, then joined the Laboratory of Cellular Oncology as a National Research Service Award postdoctoral fellow in 1983. Dr. Schiller became a senior staff fellow in the Laboratory of Cellular Oncology in 1986 and a senior investigator in 1992. He became chief of the Neoplastic Disease Section of the lab in 1998, deputy lab chief in 2000, and designated as an NIH Distinguished Investigator in 2016. 

Planned Parenthood was awarded the 2017 Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award, according to the Lasker Foundation, “for providing essential health services and reproductive care to millions of women for more than a century.”

Planned Parenthood's services include prevention, testing, and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, including HPV vaccinations, in addition to family planning.

But its family planning services, and especially its status as the nation’s largest abortion provider, have drawn fierce opposition from opponents of abortion rights, with the Republican-majority House of Representatives voting to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood in May as part of a healthcare bill that also called for repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare. While the repeal effort died in the U.S. Senate, ACA repeal and replacement may resurface as Congress reconvenes this fall.

For 72 years, the Lasker Awards have honored scientists, clinicians, and public citizens worldwide who have made major advancements in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of human disease. Each award category includes an honorarium of $250,000.

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