The 2014 Albert and Mary Lasker Awards, announced yesterday, will go to five scientists working in fields that showcase the potential translation of basic science into addressing unmet medical needs. The Lasker prize honors individuals who have made fundamental biological discoveries, developed therapies to dramatically improve patient care, and provided mentorship and leadership to pave the way for the next generation of scientists, said Claire Pomeroy, president of the Lasker Foundation. 

“This year’s laureates join that tradition and illustrate to the public why science is so worthy of our support,” she noted.

The winners include Kazutoshi Mori, Ph.D., of Kyoto University, and Peter Walter, Ph.D., of the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, who received the award for their discoveries concerning the Unfolded Protein Response (UPR), an intracellular system that detects the presence of misfolded proteins in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) of cells. The Foundation recognized the scientists for their work on this cellular quality-control system found in organisms ranging from yeast to humans.

Disruptions in the UPR’s function are thought to play a role in neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, diabetes, and other illnesses. “We are particularly proud that our initial discoveries in brewer’s yeast cells have laid the foundation to uncover these fundamental mechanisms of protein quality control,” said Dr. Walter. “Yeast research led the way in unraveling the unique mechanisms by which the UPR allows the ER to communicate with the nucleus. To me it is very rewarding to see that the salient lessons learned from this tiny model organism proved directly applicable to our understanding of mammalian cell physiology and now hold promise to lead to new therapeutic strategies in numerous diseases.”

The Foundation also awarded a prize to Alim-Louis Benabid, Ph.D., of Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble, France, and Mahlon R. DeLong, M.D., professor of neurology at Emory University's School of Medicine, for their development of deep brain stimulation of the subthalamic nucleus, a surgical technique that reduces tremors and restores motor function in some patients with advanced Parkinson’s disease. Dyskinesia is a major side effect of chronic levodopa administration, the reference treatment for Parkinson's disease. Deep brain stimulation improves dyskinesia by decreasing L-DOPA requirement.

Mary-Claire King, Ph.D., professor of genome sciences and of medicine at the University of Washington, the recipient of the 2014 Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science, was cited for her “bold, imaginative, and diverse contributions to medical science and human rights.” Specifically the Foundation noted Dr. King discovered the BRCA1 gene locus that causes hereditary breast cancer.

Beginning in the 1980s, Dr. King helped to find children in Argentina taken from their families during the military regime of the late 1970s and early 1980s through an approach based on mitochondrial DNA sequencing, resulting in the reunion of more than 100 children with their families.

Most recently, Dr. King and her colleagues, in an article for JAMA, proposed that all American women 30 or older undergo screening for cancer-causing mutations regardless of their race or ethnicity. If widely adopted, such a measure would greatly widen the use of genetic testing for ovarian and breast cancer. 

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