Each September the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation recognizes the contribution made by scientists and doctors to medicine by awarding prizes to those who have made outstanding contributions to our understanding of disease, and to its treatment and prevention. The list of past recipients of these awards reads as a veritable who’s who of the greatest minds in medical research over the past 65 years, so it’s not surprising that the Lasker prizes are often called the “American Nobels”, indeed many Lasker prize winners have gone on to pay a visit to Stockholm not long afterwards.
As one might expect the Lasker prizes have often been awarded for discoveries and medical advances that relied on animal research, and this year is no exception.
The Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award went to Douglas Coleman and Jeffrey M. Friedman for their work on the hormone leptin, work that has led to a revolution in our understanding of the regulation of appetite and metabolism. The story of leptin is the story of how decades of careful research in mice led to an important discovery that is now helping to improve the lives of patients with rare genetic disorders, and more recently to help patients whose own leptin levels are too low as a result of HIV-related loss of fat tissue.
Napoleone Ferrara won the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for his discovery of the Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor (VEGF) and its role in regulating the growth of blood vessels. The description of Dr. Ferrara’s research on the Lasker website shows how Dr. Ferrara identified VEGF through research on cattle, and how his subsequent research using mice and rats ultimately resulted in the development of effective monoclonal antibody treatments for wet age related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness.
The third prize, the Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science, was awarded to Sir David Weatherall, a pioneer in the field of human genetics who has made invaluable contributions to our understanding of inherited blood disorders including α-or β-thalassemia and sickle cell anemia. His research laid the foundations for successful programs to reduce the incidence of these disorders, and of course to the development of treatments, some of which we discussed here just last week. Sir David may not have performed any animal research in his own career, but he recently chaired the committee which wrote an influential report on the role of primates in medical research. The report concluded that primate research has made an important contribution to medical progress, and is still needed in several important areas of medical research including neuroscience and vaccine development.
The message from this year’s Lasker prizes is clear; for medicine to continue to advance many different approaches to research must be applied, and among the many techniques that are necessary to progress animal research has an honored place.
Addendum: Dario Ringach has written an excellent essay on the Opposing Views website of the process through which basic scientific discoveries about the function of VEGF were harnessed to yield new therapies for retinopathy.