Harvard Medical School Professor William G. Kaelin Jr. will be awarded the 2016 Lasker Award for Medical Research.

Courtesy of Dana-Farber

Campus & Community

William Kaelin wins Lasker Award

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HMS professor honored for work on cancer-causing genes

William G. Kaelin Jr. , a professor in the Department of Medicine at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School (HMS), has been named winner of the 2016 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation.

The Lasker Award is widely regarded as America’s most prestigious biomedical honor. Eighty-seven Lasker laureates have received the Nobel Prize, 41 of them in the last three decades.

Kaelin shares the award with Peter J. Ratcliffe of the University of Oxford and the Francis Crick Institute, and Gregg L. Semenza of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who were cited for the discovery of the pathway by which cells from humans and most animals sense and adapt to changes in oxygen availability, a process essential for survival.

The 2016 Lasker Awards carry an honorarium of $250,000 for each category and will be presented on Sept. 23 in New York City.

“Dr. Kaelin is an outstanding physician, scientist, and educator,” said Barbara J. McNeil, acting dean of the Medical School. “His research into how mutations in tumor-suppressor genes lead to cancer has provided key insights that will aid in the quest to develop new treatments. We are very proud of Bill’s achievements. I am delighted that his extraordinary dedication, his years of hard work, and his remarkable discoveries have been recognized by the Lasker Foundation.”

Edward J. Benz Jr., Dana-Farber’s president and CEO, also praised Kaelin’s work. “Bill Kaelin is an extraordinary researcher and highly deserving of this honor. His work at Dana-Farber has guided and inspired cancer researchers and caregivers all over the world in understanding the mysteries of cancer. His insights have furthered our quest for developing new treatments.”

Kaelin’s research explores why mutations in genes known as tumor suppressors can lead to cancer. His study of a tumor-suppressor gene called VHL provided key insights into the body’s response to changes in oxygen levels. He discovered that VHL helps control the levels of a protein known as HIF, which ratchets up or down the response to low oxygen, such as the production of red blood cells and new blood vessels. His subsequent discovery of a molecular switch that renders HIF oxygen-sensitive was critical to the understanding of how cells react to variations in oxygen level.

“The work of this year’s honorees epitomizes the power and impact of dedication to rigorous and innovative medical research. These outstanding advances have illuminated fundamental aspects of life, developed a cure for a deadly disease, and raised public engagement with science,” said Claire Pomeroy, president of the Lasker Foundation. “The innovative and highly original achievements of these scientists highlight the critical importance of sustained support for biomedical research in attaining a healthier future for all.”

The 2015 Lasker Award co-recipients were Stephen J. Elledge, the Gregor Mendel Professor of Genetics and of Medicine at HMS and Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Evelyn Witkin of Rutgers University.

For 71 years, the Lasker Awards have recognized the contributions of scientists, clinicians, and public citizens who have made major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of human disease.

Recipients of the Lasker Medical Research Awards are selected by a distinguished international jury chaired by Joseph L. Goldstein, recipient of the 1985 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research and the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

For more details on the Lasker Award recipients, the full citations for each award category, video interviews and photos of the awardees, and information on the Foundation, visit its website.