The Lasker Awards, which are among the nation’s most prestigious prizes in medicine, were awarded on Tuesday to a Scottish veterinarian who developed the drug propofol, two scientists who discovered the hidden influence of genetic packing material called histones and a researcher who in addition to doing groundbreaking work in RNA biology, paved the way for a new generation of female scientists.
The awards are given by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation and carry a prize of $250,000 for each of three categories. They are sometimes called the “American Nobels” because 87 of the Lasker recipients have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.
Dr. John B. Glen
He developed the drug propofol, now a widely used anesthetic that has transformed surgery.
Dr. Glen, the recipient of the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, is only the second veterinarian to win a Lasker in 73 years, according to the foundation.
A pharmaceutical career was an unlikely path for Dr. Glen, but the fact that he was interested in anesthesia was no surprise: for years, he had taught the subject to students at Glasgow University’s veterinary school. “I was anesthetizing dogs, cats, horses — whatever animals came around,” Dr. Glen said in an interview. Once he used anesthesia on a pelican to fix its beak.
When he arrived in the 1970s at ICI Pharmaceuticals, later acquired by AstraZeneca, Dr. Glen had turned his attention to humans and was on the hunt for a replacement for thiopentone, a widely used anesthetic that quickly put patients to sleep but often made them groggy afterward.
In lab tests on mice, he and his colleagues discovered that one of the company’s existing compounds, propofol, seemed to work as well as thiopentone but wore off quickly, without the hangover effect of the earlier drug. Propofol was approved in 1986 in the United Kingdom and in the United States three years later.
The drug, known as the “milk of amnesia” because of its milky consistency, has since been used by hundreds of millions of patients and is credited with leading to the rapid expansion of outpatient surgery because patients recover so quickly.
In 2009, propofol’s reputation took a hit after Michael Jackson’s personal physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, administered a lethal dose of the drug to the singer. Dr. Murray was convicted in 2011 on charges of involuntary manslaughter, and Dr. Glen said he followed the trial closely.
“It was never intended to be used in that way,” Dr. Glen said. But of the drug’s broader success, he said, “I’m delighted that it has become so widely used.”
Joan Argetsinger Steitz
She became a champion of women in her field and trained nearly 200 future scientists.
Dr. Steitz, the recipient of the Lasker-Koshland Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science, said winning the award is particularly significant because it signals how far she has come since her days as an undergraduate lab technician in the early 1960s.
“When I started out being excited by science — but seeing that there weren’t any women scientists — I thought I had no prospects whatsoever,” she said in an interview. “The one thing that I really wanted was to have the respect of my peers for the scientific contributions I made, and for my participation in the scientific community.”
More than four decades later, Dr. Steitz has her own lab at Yale University and her work has led to several breakthroughs in the understanding of RNA, a type of molecule that carries out many tasks in the cell, such as helping to read the information in our genes.
One of her biggest discoveries was particles made up of RNA molecules and proteins, known as small nuclear ribonucleoproteins, or snRNPs for short. They’re scattered throughout cells and among other things, they help cut messenger RNA into pieces, some of which get pasted back together. This process, called splicing, is essential to the process of making proteins from genes. This discovery led to an entire new field of research in cell biology.
She was an author of a 2007 National Academy of Sciences report that recommended specific steps for maximizing the potential of women in academic science and engineering. Since then, she gives talks about how to encourage more women in science and is also being recognized for her work as a mentor. She has trained almost 200 students and postdoctoral fellows, according to the Lasker foundation.
Of the 360 papers that have come from her laboratory, 60 do not include her name, “a gesture of generosity that reflects her belief that students and postdoctoral fellows who work completely independently should be allowed to publish on their own,” according to the Lasker foundation’s citation.
In an interview, Dr. Steitz downplayed this detail. She said in her early days running her own lab, she frequently left her name off papers because she was following in the scientific tradition she had learned as a young researcher.
As for her role as an activist, “I sort of feel a little embarrassed by that, because there are so many women that have done so much more,” she said. What she has done, she said is to be “a good citizen and try to help women and other underrepresented people to fulfill their potential.”
C. David Allis and Michael Grunstein
They took a new look at a protein once considered the “packing material” of DNA.
From opposite ends of the country, Dr. Allis, whose lab is at The Rockefeller University in New York, and Dr. Grunstein, at the University of California, Los Angeles, pioneered work that elevated the importance of histones, proteins in the chromosomes that previously had gone overlooked. They are the recipients of the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award.
DNA molecules are so long that, if they were stretched from end to end, one strand would reach six feet. Histones are the proteins that coil and cram these strands into a microscopic cell — and they were long seen as little more than DNA spools, part of the basic machinery of the cell.
“I went into the field thinking, everyone’s working on gene activity, I want to work on packing material,” Dr. Grunstein said in a video produced by the Lasker foundation. “I didn’t want to go the direction everyone else was going in.”
What Dr. Grunstein and Dr. Allis discovered is that, in fact, histones play a crucial role in turning genes on and off, which allows each cell to do its assigned task. The two worked separately, Dr. Grunstein focusing on genetics, and Dr. Allis on biochemical processes.
While their award is for basic science, the practical implications for their discoveries are profound. “Mistakes in setting this up seem to be very clearly causing cancer,” Dr. Allis said in the video.
Drug developers used the evolving understanding of histones to come up with new treatments, including to treat cancer, such as Zolinza, sold by Merck. More are in the pipeline.
“It’s spawned really a whole new area of potential therapies in humans, and that’s pretty rewarding,” Dr. Allis said.
More coverage of the Lasker Awards