Facebook founder, chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan; Google co-founder Sergey Brin and his wife, 23andMe co-founder Anne Wojcicki; and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner today awarded $3 million each to 11 biotech and biomedical pioneers through their Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation.

“These prizes will be awarded for past achievements in the field of life sciences, with the aim of providing the recipients with more freedom and opportunity to pursue even greater future accomplishments,” the foundation stated on its website.

The foundation’s 11 winners were honored yesterday in a ceremony at University of California, San Francisco’s Mission Bay campus:

  • Cornelia Bargmann, Torsten N. Wiesel professor and head of the Lulu and Anthony Wang Laboratory of Neural Circuits and Behavior at Rockefeller University; Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. For the genetics of neural circuits and behavior, and synaptic guidepost molecules
  • David Botstein, director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics and the Anthony B. Evnin professor of genomics at Princeton University. For linkage mapping of Mendelian disease in humans using DNA polymorphisms
  • Lewis C. Cantley, Margaret and Herman Sokol professor and director of the Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medical College and New York-Presbyterian Hospital. For the discovery of PI 3-Kinase and its role in cancer metabolism
  • Hans Clevers, professor of molecular genetics at Hubrecht Institute. For describing the role of Wnt signaling in tissue stem cells and cancer
  • Titia de Lange, Leon Hess professor, head of the Laboratory of Cell Biology and Genetics, and director of the Anderson Center for Cancer Research at the Rockefeller University. For research on telomeres, illuminating how they protect chromosome ends and their role in genome instability in cancer
  • Napoleone Ferrara, distinguished professor of pathology and senior deputy director for basic sciences at Moores Cancer Center at the University of California, San Diego. For discoveries in the mechanisms of angiogenesis that led to therapies for cancer and eye diseases
  • Eric S. Lander, president and founding director of the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT; professor of biology at MIT; and professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School. For the discovery of general principles for identifying human disease genes, and enabling their application to medicine through the creation and analysis of genetic, physical, and sequence maps of the human genome
  • Charles L. Sawyers, chair, human oncology and pathogenesis program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. For cancer genes and targeted therapy
  • Bert Vogelstein, director of the Ludwig Center and Clayton professor of oncology and pathology at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center; Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. For cancer genomics and tumor suppressor genes
  • Robert Weinberg, Daniel K. Ludwig professor for cancer research at MIT and director of the MIT/Ludwig Center for Molecular Oncology; member, Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. For characterization of human cancer genes
  • Shinya Yamanaka, director of the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application, Kyoto University; senior investigator, Gladstone Institutes. For induced pluripotent stem cells

“We are thrilled to support scientists who think big, take risks, and have made a significant impact on our lives. These scientists should be household names and heroes in society,” Wojcicki said in a statement.

Said Brin in the statement: “Curing a disease should be worth more than a touchdown.”

Milner last summer awarded $3 million Fundamental Physics Prizes to nine physicists, and is set to name another set of winners on March 20. “Solving the enormous complexity of human diseases calls for a much bigger effort compared to fundamental physics and therefore requires multiple sponsors to reward outstanding achievements,” Milner said in the statement.

Milner, Wojcicki, and Zuckerberg also serve as directors of the foundation, which is being chaired by Art Levinson, chairman of Apple’s board, and chairman and former CEO of Genentech before its $47 billion acquisition by Roche in 2009.

The $3 million awards are more than twice the sum earned by individual Nobel laureates, making breakthrough the world’s richest prize for life-sci achievement. Going forward, the foundation said, it will award its $3 million prizes to five life scientists annually, for a total $15 million.

In addition, each year’s prize winners will join the foundation’s Selection Committee for future awardees. However, anyone will be able to nominate a candidate online, and nominees face no age restrictions. The prize can be shared between any number of scientists, and winners can receive the prize more than once in their lifetimes. 

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