Hopkins scientists win 'America's Nobels' McKusick, Sommer to get Lasker awards for medical research

September 23, 1997|By Jonathan Bor and Frank D. Roylance | Jonathan Bor and Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Also, Tuesday's article on the Lasker Awards omitted Dr. William B. Kouwenhoven from a list of past Johns Hopkins University recipients. Kouwenhoven won the Lasker Award in 1973.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Two leading scientists at the Johns Hopkins University will receive the coveted Albert Lasker Medical Research Awards this week -- Victor McKusick for his contributions to medical genetics and Alfred Sommer for his pioneering research into vitamin A.

The annual awards are given to scientists, physicians and public servants who have made major inroads against the great killers and cripplers. Often called "America's Nobels," the prizes will be bestowed Friday at a ceremony in New York.


Winners were announced yesterday by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, an organization founded by two New York philanthropists in 1945. A third prize goes to Dr. Mark S. Ptashne, a molecular biologist at New York's Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Ptashne discovered a molecule called the "lambda repressor" which turns genes "off" and "on."

Laskers have come to be viewed as a steppingstone to a Nobel Prize, with 56 past winners eventually capturing Nobels.

McKusick, one of the most venerable figures at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, was selected for his role in founding medical genetics as a distinct branch of medicine. He has spent a career deciphering the relationship between particular genes and afflictions such as dwarfism, Marfan syndrome and colorblindness, and cataloging the discoveries of other researchers.

"His name is sort of synonymous with medical genetics and clinical genetics," said Dr. Joseph L. Goldstein, chief of molecular genetics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and chairman of the Lasker jury. "When he started out, he started one of the world's first divisions of medical genetics in 1957. There were only a few. Now, there are over a hundred training 2,000 individuals per year."

McKusick, 75, whose list of previous awards and honors runs a full page, single-spaced, said he was nevertheless "very pleased to get it. The Lasker is always a very nice award to get."

His colleagues had already begun to learn early yesterday of the honor, and "the enthusiasm with which the news has been received is something that gladdens my heart greatly," he said. An admitted Hopkins "chauvinist," McKusick noted with pride and characteristic precision that, as of yesterday, he had worked beneath the Hopkins dome exactly 54 years, 7 months.

"I haven't even taken a sabbatical," he said.

Sommer, dean of the Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, is being recognized for his pioneering studies that demonstrated vitamin A's role in preventing life-threatening infections.

Silence, later scorn

His studies were at first greeted with silence and later with scorn by scientists who could not believe that a single vitamin, known mainly for its role in preventing blindness, could save the lives of children living amid poverty and broad-ranging malnutrition.

"He carried out some really breathtaking epidemiology in not only attacking the problem of blindness, but also noticing that a number of deaths were reduced in infants who had vitamin A supplements," said Dr. Mary Ellen Avery, a juror who is a professor of pediatrics at the Harvard Medical School.

Sommer said he never expected to get a Lasker, which rarely goes to someone engaged in public health research.

"This is really wonderful on a personal basis, and wonderful because it will give added emphasis to the importance of vitamin A deficiency," said Sommer, 54. "I obviously had very strong supporters, people who knew the work and appreciated it."

Historically, the Lasker Foundation has awarded two prizes, one for clinical research, which goes this year to Sommer, and another for basic medical research, which goes to Ptashne. Last year, the foundation established a special achievement award, won this year by McKusick. That prize recognizes a lifetime body of work.

Each winner will receive a $25,000 honorarium and an inscribed statuette at a ceremony Friday at the Pierre Hotel in New York.

The winners were selected by a jury of eminent scientists, who reviewed a total of 110 nominations made in the three categories.

Now 'fiscally retired'

McKusick, a former chairman of Hopkins' department of medicine and physician-in-chief of the hospital, said he is now "fiscally retired." He receives no salary, but retains a Hopkins office and works full time on his publications and as a clinical consultant. "Sometimes I feel I have a tiger by the tail and can't let go," he said.

Trained at Hopkins as a cardiologist, he tackled medical genetics while working with patients suffering from Marfan syndrome. Caused by a defect in the genes that build proteins for connective tissue, Marfan's most dangerous effect is a life-threatening weakness in the aorta, the chief artery leading from the heart.

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