September 30, 1999
University Gazette


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Kety Wins Lasker Award For a Lifetime Of Medical Achievements

By William J. Cromie
Gazette Staff

Seymour Kety, professor of neuroscience emeritus at the Harvard Medical School, has won the 1999 Albert Lasker Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science.

He is being honored for a lifetime of contributions to neuroscience, including discovery of the genetic basis of schizophrenia, and of methods for measuring blood flow to the brain. His research, leadership, and teaching played a major role in moving psychiatry from a socially oriented discipline to one with a solid foundation in biological and medical science.

"I was quite surprised by the award," Kety said. "I knew I had been nominated, but I discounted the idea of winning."

Three types of Lasker Awards will be presented at a ceremony in New York City on Oct. 1. One honors progress in basic medical research, another is given for clinical advances immediately applicable to treatment of patients, and the third goes for special achievement. Together they are considered "America’s Nobels," the highest awards for medical research given in the United States. Of 232 Laskers given since the awards were first presented in 1946, 61 recipients have gone on to win Nobel Prizes.

Lasker recipients receive an honorarium, a citation, and an inscribed statuette of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation’s symbol of humankind’s victory over disease and disability. Kety, 84, said he will use the $25,000 honorarium to support his ongoing research on schizophrenia at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., where he is a senior psychobiologist.

Greatest Center in the World

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1940, Kety became interested in blood flow to the brain and how it might be tied to behavior. He devised ways to measure this flow by using laughing gas (nitrous oxide) in awake and asleep patients. The results showed that different areas of the brain receive more or less blood depending on their function in normal behavior or disease.

Those investigations led to modern imaging techniques, such as PET scanning, which provide three-dimensional views of activity in the brain. For example, scans can detect tumors, or can see what happens in various parts of the brain when a person speaks, hears, or thinks of a word.

In 1951, Kety became the first scientific director of the newly established National Institute of Mental Health. "I was given unprecedented resources and told to establish the greatest center in the world for research on the brain and behavior," he recalled.

Kety set up 200 laboratories devoted to studying every aspect of biology and psychology that could contribute to understanding the brain. "It was a big departure in the field of psychiatry, concentrating on basic scientific research that would eventually help everyone, rather than working on specific types of patients and conditions."

The Lasker Award is a testimony to the success of that approach.

The Other Side of Schizophrenia

Kety moved to the Harvard Medical School in 1967. He directed psychiatric research, first at Massachusetts General Hospital then at McLean Hospital, both Harvard teaching hospitals. At the same time, he continued his celebrated research on the cause of schizophrenia.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the thinking, emotional, and behavioral disturbances that characterize this most common form of psychotic illness were blamed on faulty child-rearing, particularly by mothers. Kety led a group that studied schizophrenics in Denmark who were raised by adoptive families. That enabled them to separate the influence of biology and environment – of nature and nurture.

"We found a fivefold greater prevalence of schizophrenia in the biological relatives of schizophrenics than in the general population, but prevalence in adopted families was the same as in the general public," Kety explained. "This meant that schizophrenics are born with a genetic disposition for the disease; its roots are biological and not a result of improper rearing. The result relieved parents of a terrible burden of misplaced guilt."

That study provided solid proof of Kety’s thesis that "the best hope of preventing mental disorders rests with an understanding of their underlying biology."

Along with Kety, five others will receive Lasker honors on Oct. 1. The award for basic research was won by Clay Armstrong, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine; Bertil Hille, University of Washington, Seattle; and Roderick MacKinnon, Rockefeller University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute in New York for their work on elucidating how nerve impulses are generated. David Cushman and Miguel Ondetti, both of Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., won the award for clinical research with their design of drugs to treat high blood pressure, heart failure, and diabetic kidney disease.

Harvard faculty who won Lasker Awards and then went on to capture Nobel Prizes include John Enders, who won a Nobel in 1954; James Watson, 1962; George Wald, 1967; and Walter Gilbert, 1980.


Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College