2019 Lasker Awards highlight the invaluable role of animal research

The Lasker Awards are among the most prestigious prizes in medicine in the U.S. Awarded annually, these awards given by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation serve to “shine a spotlight on fundamental biological discoveries and clinical advances that improve human health, and to draw attention to the importance of public support of science.” The Lasker awards are so highly regarded, they have been nicknamed “America’s Nobels.”

In past years, the Lasker Awards have regularly featured scientists who rely on animals in their research. This year is no exception. Here are the recipients of the 2019 Lasker Awards and the animals that made their discoveries possible.

Basic Medical Research Award

This year’s Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award honors two scientists, Max D. Cooper and Jacques Miller, who identified and defined the function of B and T cells, uncovering the organizing principle of the adaptive immune response.

During the 1960s, when Dr. Miller started his research career, scientists were beginning to discover how our bodies protect us from microbial invaders, such as bacteria and viruses and how surviving these attacks generates  immunological memory, protecting us from subsequent attacks. Miller showed, using mice, that the thymus, previously thought to be a vestigial organ (i.e., serving no purpose), was essential for the adaptive immune response. Dr. Cooper later showed, using chickens, that B cells mature in the bursa of Fabricius (an organ unique to chickens) and characterized the different stages of B cell development. Miller established that interactions between B and T cells are essential to their normal maturation and function. Later, Cooper and colleagues showed that, in mammals, B cells are generated in the liver of the fetus and the bone marrow after birth.

These seminal discoveries defined the field of adaptive immunity and served as the building blocks for current immunology research and clinical advances.

Lasker~DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award

The 2019 Lasker~DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award honors three scientists—H. Michael Shepard, Dennis J. Slamon, and Axel Ullrich—who invented Herceptin, the first monoclonal antibody that blocks a cancer-causing protein, and developed it into a life-saving therapy for women with breast cancer.

In the mid 1970s, scientists discovered that certain genes—oncogenes—within our own bodies can trigger cancer. This revelation sparked the idea that stifling the activities of such oncogenes might thwart the trouble they instigate. This approach—in which a therapy would fixate on molecules that dwell specifically in cancer cells and also drive malignancy—held great appeal. Such a targeted strategy might avoid many of the harsh side effects associated with chemotherapy while striking the source of the affliction.

Ullrich was one of several scientists to independently identify the oncogene, HER2, and he and Shepard investigated its cancer-causing effects. Slamon, meanwhile, showed that some breast tumours had extra copies of the HER2 gene and overproduced its protein product. Their work, as well as that of others, involved the study of oncogenes in humans, mice, rats and chickens as well as the development of monoclonal antibodies in mice. Creation of a humanized: monoclonal antibody which stopped tumor growth without triggering the innate immune response, followed by clinical trials in humans, eventually led to the development of “Herceptin”.  Herceptin was approved for use in human treatment in  1998.

Lasker~Bloomberg Public Service Award

The 2019 Lasker~Bloomberg Public Service Award honors Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, for providing sustained access to childhood vaccines around the globe, thus saving millions of lives, and for highlighting the power of immunization to prevent disease. We have previously posted about the invaluable role that animal research plays in the development, establishment of safety and efficacy and continued monitoring.

~Speaking of Research