The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation today named seven scientists as winners of its annual awards for work that has advanced the potential translation of basic science into addressing unmet medical needs.

Three researchers won the 2016 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, which recognizes scientists for fundamental discoveries that have opened up new fields of research.

William G. Kaelin, Jr., M.D., of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School; Professor Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe, M.D., FRCP, FMedSci, FRS, of University of Oxford and Francis Crick Institute; and Gregg L. Semenza, M.D., Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine were honored for the discovery of the pathway by which cells sense and adapt to changes in oxygen availability—a pathway with relevance to treating heart disease and cancer.

“We all look forward to the possibility of drugs being developed around this system, respectful that not just us scientists, but the entrepreneurs, the financers, many, many disciplines that need to come together to put a safe drug on the market,” Dr. Ratcliff said during a conference call of this year’s  Lasker Award winners with reporters this morning. “The possibilities are legion, but the challenges are there: Can we treat anemia? Can we treat cancer?”

Another disease for which the discovery may yield treatment insights, Dr. Ratcliff added, is ischemia: “There’s a finite possibility that for the first time, the therapeutic modulation for the natural oxygen sensing system could potentially augment the natural response to improve these dreadful diseases.

Three other researchers were named winners of the 2016 Lasker~DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, a prize given to investigators for “major advances that have improved the lives of many millions of people.”

Ralf F.W. Bartenschlager, Ph.D., of the University of Heidelberg; Charles M. Rice, Ph.D., of Rockefeller University; and Michael J. Sofia, Ph.D., of Arbutus Biopharma were recognized for the development of a system to study the replication of the hepatitis C virus, as well as the use of this technique by companies that developed three new classes of drugs designed to inhibit HCV replication in cells and in people.

“My team had an idea that it might be possible to design a drug that targets all forms of this virus—there are many forms of the virus—in such a way that you could prevent the virus from replicating itself, and do it in a way that could prevent the formation of mutated virus, and also was safe,” Dr. Sofia said. “We also hoped that we could design a drug that for the first time selectively targeted the liver, where the HCV virus lived, and not affect any other part of the body.

Bruce M. Alberts, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Francisco, has received the 2016 Lasker~Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science, an honor bestowed on scientists whose research accomplishments and scientific statesmanship “engender the deepest feelings of awe and respect.”

Dr. Alberts received the Lasker~Koshland award for his pioneering work in science and mathematics education and his leadership in directing national and international scientific organizations. He devised biochemical tools designed to advance understanding of how cells copy DNA; co-authored the widely-used textbook Molecular Biology of the Cell, now in its 6th edition; and served as president of the National Academies of Science from 1993–2005, and editor-in-chief of Science from 2009–2013.

“A huge challenge is, how do we create the kind of change we need to enable every child in school to actually come to an appreciation of what science is, how it works, what it means when there’s a consensus among scientists,” Dr. Alberts said.

Answering a GEN question during the conference call, Dr. Alberts identified another key science education challenge: The need to improve the dysfunctional system that trains and sustains postdoctoral researchers—the object of several efforts launched or advanced over the past year.

“It’s clear that many issues that are critical to understand if we’re going to really improve human health in dramatic new ways in the future are not being attacked by modern methods. We have an opportunity to really do better,” he added.

Each award category includes an honorarium of $250,000.

For more than 70 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.

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