Campus & Community

HMS’s Szostak wins prestigious Lasker

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One of three researchers who discovered telomerase

Jack W. Szostak, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, is among this year’s Lasker Award winners. Now celebrating its 61st anniversary, the Lasker Awards are the nation’s most distinguished honor for outstanding contributions to basic and clinical medical research, as well as for special achievement in the medical research enterprise.

The Lasker Award for basic medical research honors Szostak, Elizabeth H. Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco, and Carol W. Greider, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who predicted and discovered telomerase, a remarkable RNA-containing enzyme that synthesizes the ends of chromosomes, protecting them and maintaining the integrity of the genome. The researchers’ work uncovered the molecular machinery that replenishes chromosome tips, or telomeres, and laid the foundation for studies that have connected telomerase and telomeres to human cancer and age-related conditions.

Often called “America’s Nobels,” Lasker Awards have been given to 71 scientists who subsequently went on to receive the Nobel Prize, including 20 in the past 16 years.

The awards will be presented at a luncheon ceremony on Friday, Sept. 29, at the Pierre Hotel in New York City. President of the Institute of Medicine and Harvard Professor Emeritus Harvey V. Fineberg will be the keynote speaker.

Joseph L. Goldstein, recipient of the 1984 Lasker Award for basic medical research and the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1985 (both with Michael Brown) and chairman of the international jury that selects Lasker Award winners, said, “Scientists make great discoveries by pursuing curious observations, devising bold experiments, rigorously testing ideas, throwing aside conventional thought, and working with great persistence. This year’s Lasker Awards honor investigators who have demonstrated these ingredients of success.

“The discovery of telomerase by the Lasker basic awardees is an example of pure curiosity-driven research that emerged from work on two organisms – a pond-dwelling ciliate and baker’s yeast – that have no direct relevance to human disease. This basic research had no medical impact for 15 years – until the early 1990s when scientists identified telomerase in human cells and showed that it played a crucial role in two disease-related areas: cancer and aging. Today, telomerase research is one of the hottest fields of biomedical science.”

The Lasker Awards, first presented in 1946, are administered by the Albert & Mary Lasker Foundation. The late Mary Lasker is widely recognized for her singular contribution to the growth of the National Institutes of Health and her unflagging commitment to government funding of medical research in the hope of curing devastating diseases. Her support for medical research spanned five decades, during which she was the nation’s foremost citizen-activist on behalf of medical science.

Lasker Award recipients receive an honorarium ($100,000 for each award), a citation highlighting their achievements, and an inscribed statuette of the “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” the Lasker Foundation’s traditional symbol representing humanity’s victory over disability, disease, and death.