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At $3 Million, New Award Gives Medical Researchers a Dose of Celebrity

By Dennis Overbye

The New York Times, February 20, 2013

Editor’s Note: The following is a New York Times profile on NYAM Fellow Eric Lander. Dr. Lander received  the Academy Medal for Distinguished Contributions in Biomedical Science in 2009. 

Eleven scientists, most of them American, were scheduled to be named on Wednesday as the first winners of the world’s richest academic prize for medicine and biology — $3 million each, more than twice the amount of the Nobel Prize.

The award, the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, was established by four Internet titans led by Yuri Milner, a Russian entrepreneur and philanthropist who caused a stir last summer when he began giving physicists $3 million awards.

The others, whom Mr. Milner described as old friends, are Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google; Anne Wojcicki, the founder of the genetics company 23andMe and Mr. Brin’s wife; and Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. They plan to give five awards annually.

Ms. Wojcicki said the prize was meant to reward scientists “who think big, take risks and have made a significant impact on our lives.”

“These scientists should be household names and heroes in society,” she said.

Many of the first winners have done work on the intricate genetics of cell growth and how it can go wrong to produce cancer. The new prize was scheduled to be announced at a news conference in San Francisco, along with the following recipients:

  • Cornelia I. Bargmann, who investigates the nervous system and behavior at Rockefeller University.
  • David Botstein of Princeton University, who maps disease markers in the human genome.
  • Lewis C. Cantley of Weill Cornell Medical College, who discovered a family of enzymes related to cell growth and cancer.
  • Dr. Hans Clevers of the Hubrecht Institute in the Netherlands, who has studied how processes in adult stem cells can go wrong and cause cancer.
  • Dr. Napoleone Ferrara of the University of California, San Diego, whose work on tumor growth has led to therapies for some kinds of cancer and eye disease.
  • Titia de Lange, who works on telomeres, the protective tips on the ends of chromosomes, at Rockefeller University.
  • Eric S. Lander of the Broad Institute of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a leader of the Human Genome Project.
  • Dr. Charles L. Sawyers of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who has investigated the signaling pathways that drive a cell to cancer.
  • Dr. Bert Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins University, who discovered a protein that suppresses the growth of tumors and devised a model for the progression of colon cancer that is widely used in colonoscopy.
  • Robert A. Weinberg of M.I.T., who discovered the first human oncogene, a gene that when mutated causes cancer.
  • Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University and the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, who has done groundbreaking work in developing stem cells.

In an interview, Dr. Lander said he was shocked to win the award, calling it “a staggering amount of money for a scientist.”

“Their idea seems to be to grab society’s attention, to send a message that science is exciting, important, cool, our future,” he said. “It’s a very important message here in the U.S.” Dr. Lander said he would use the prize money to help pay for new approaches to teaching biology online.

The new awards are in some ways an outgrowth of Mr. Milner’s Fundamental Physics Prizes. In July, he gave $3 million each to nine theoretical physicists, and the next round is scheduled to be awarded on March 20 in Geneva.

But even as Mr. Milner was starting the physics prize, he was thinking of extending the concept to the life sciences. He reached out to Arthur D. Levinson, the chairman of Apple and a former chief executive of Genentech, the biotech company, and Dr. Levinson, in consultation with his colleagues, helped Mr. Milner select the first Breakthrough winners. These winners will form a committee that will select future winners, Mr. Milner said.

The founders said their goal was to “move the needle” of public awareness of scientists who have spent their lives advancing human knowledge.

With so much focus on sports and movie celebrities, Dr. Levinson said, the prizewinners “can share the stage with the people who on some deeper level have made important contributions.”

The founders said they hoped to attract more sponsors and increase the number of annual winners. Anyone can send a nomination to the foundation’s new Web site.

There are no age or other limits on who can win. Any number of people can share an award. And in particular, Mr. Milner said, there are no limits on how many times one individual can win. “If you’re Einstein,” he said, “you will be getting three.”

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