Five life science researchers will be awarded the “Oscars of Science”

The winners of the Breakthrough Prize, known as the world’s most generous science prize, were announced on Wednesday morning. Each recipient will receive $3 million for their “transformative” advances toward understanding living systems and extending human life. In its seventh year, the prizes are awarded in the life sciences, physics, and mathematics. 

“The winners of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Science show us all how it’s done,” said Cori Bargmann, Ph.D., professor at The Rockefeller University and chair of the Breakthrough Prize selection committee. “Through creativity, innovation, persistence, and skill, each of them brought about an advance that was previously unimaginable.”

The 2019 Breakthrough Prizes in Life Science will be awarded to:

C. Frank Bennett, Ph.D., and Adrian R. Krainer, Ph.D., of Ionis Pharmaceuticals and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, respectively, for the development of an effective antisense oligonucleotide therapy for children with the neurodegenerative disease spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). SMA is the leading genetic cause of infant death with many SMA patients dying before they turn two years old. However, with these two reserachers leading the way, the first drug to treat SMA became a reality. Nusinersen (marketed by Biogen as Spinraza®) was approved by the FDA in 2016 and has paved the way for other antisense therapies that work through a similar mechanism.

Angelika Amon, Ph.D., of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, for determining the consequences of aneuploidy, an abnormal chromosome number resulting from chromosome mis-segregation. Dr. Amon’s research is at the forefront of the discovery of novel targets for cancer treatment by elucidating the role of aneuploidy in the production of a stress response that disrupts the cell's fail-safe, error-repair system which allows genetic mutations to quickly accumulate.

Xiaowei Zhuang, Ph.D., of Harvard University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, for discovering hidden structures in cells by developing super-resolution imaging—a method that transcends the fundamental spatial resolution limit of light microscopy. Dr. Zhuang invented a super-resolution imaging method (STORM) which uses switchable fluorescent molecules to allow for ultra-high resolution of molecules and cellular structures. Using STORM, her lab has discovered previously unknown cellular structures, such as a periodic membrane skeleton in neurons in the brain. 

Zhijian “James” Chen, Ph.D., of University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, for elucidating how DNA triggers immune and autoimmune responses from the interior of a cell through the discovery of the DNA-sensing enzyme cGAS. Dr. Chen’s research has led to the understanding of how DNA in our body is sensed by a protein, that, ultimately, activates the T cells and white blood cells. This mechanism can be utilized to develop new ways to target cancer and autoimmune disorders.

The recipients of the 2019 Breakthrough Prize, and New Horizon Prize (given to junior researchers), will be recognized at the seventh annual Breakthrough Prize ceremony, known as the “Oscars of Science,” hosted by Pierce Brosnan, on Sunday, November 4, at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. The Breakthrough Prize annoucement states that “the event brings together luminaries of the science and tech communities with celebrities, athletes and musicians, all attending with the common goal of celebrating science and scientific achievement.” This year’s ceremony will be broadcast live on the National Geographic channel, YouTube, and Facebook Live from the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

The Breakthrough Prizes are sponsored by their founders Priscilla Chan, M.D., and Mark Zuckerberg, along with Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Tencent co-founder Ma Huateng, technology investors Yuri and Julia Milner, and 23andMe CEO and co-founder Anne Wojcicki. The selection committees are composed of previous Breakthrough Prize laureates in each field.

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