Britons, Canadians win Lasker prizes

Scientists awarded for stem cell, DNA research

Komen founder gets service honor

September 18, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The 2005 Lasker Awards for medical research are going to scientists who discovered stem cells, invented genetic fingerprinting and developed a powerful technology that played a crucial role in mapping the human genome.

And a nonscientist, Nancy Brinker, is the winner of the Lasker Public Service Award for creating the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, which has helped transform a disease once rarely mentioned in polite conversation into an international issue.

The awards, widely considered the United States' most prestigious medical prizes, are being announced today by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation. The scientific awards carry a $25,000 prize; the public service award has no monetary prize.

Brinker created the Komen foundation in 1982 to fulfill a promise to her sister, Susan Komen, who had died of breast cancer at age 36. Brinker started and "nurtured the grass-roots breast cancer advocacy movement," the Lasker Foundation said. Now 58, Brinker is also a breast cancer survivor.

The research award for stem cell work is going to Drs. Ernest A. McCulloch and James E. Till, emeritus professors at the University of Toronto and the Ontario Cancer Institute.

Scientists had long theorized that the body contained cells that could renew themselves, mature and specialize. But no one had found them until McCulloch, now 79, and Till, 74, proved their existence in the blood-forming system.

Sir Edwin Southern of the University of Oxford and Sir Alec J. Jeffreys of the University of Leicester in England received the Lasker Award for developing two powerful technologies, Southern blotting and DNA fingerprinting, that, the foundation said, "together revolutionized human genetics and forensic diagnostics."

Working in Edinburgh in the 1970s, Southern, now 79, developed the technique now known by his name that allowed detection of a single gene in a complex genome and that eventually enabled the rapid sequencing of entire genomes.

Suddenly, scientists had a new way to search for gene sequences of particular interest and to detect subtle DNA differences among individuals.

Scientists used the technique, for example, to pinpoint mutations linked to inherited diseases. Detection of such mutations has led to tests for prenatal detection of diseases like sickle cell anemia and thalassemia.

Southern blotting also led to the second breakthrough, genetic fingerprinting. The method provides a way to distinguish every person from every other person, except an identical twin.

Genetic fingerprinting has changed the way law enforcement agencies have solved crimes like murder and rape, and has absolved the innocent, settled paternity and immigration disputes, helped improve techniques for transplanting organs and tissues, led to tests to detect and better understand inherited diseases, and helped establish human origins and migrations.

Jeffreys, now 55, used the Southern blot technique to study certain DNA segments present in all humans. In 1984, he noticed in one Southern blot that the pattern of these segments varied from person to person, creating a unique genetic "fingerprint" of an individual.

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