Lasker Awards Go to HPV Vaccine Researchers, Planned Parenthood

Troy Brown, RN


September 06, 2017

The 2017 winners of the Lasker Awards were announced today, with awards going to the researchers who developed the first human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines, to Planned Parenthood, and to a researcher whose work on nutrient-activated TOR (target of rapamycin) proteins showed that cell growth is a highly regulated process.

The winners "are being honored for their work in basic and clinical medical research and in public service," Claire Pomeroy, MD, president of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, said at a teleconference today.

Douglas R. Lowy, MD, and John T. Schiller, PhD, both from the National Cancer Institute, Rockville, Maryland, won the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for a major advance that improves the lives of many thousands of people. Their research centers on the development of HPV vaccines that prevent cervical cancer and other tumors caused by HPVs.

Dr John Schiller and Dr Douglas Lowy (Courtesy of the Lasker Foundation)

Planned Parenthood won the Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award for providing vital health services and reproductive care to millions of women for more than 100 years.

Michael N. Hall, PhD, Biozentrum, University of Basel, Switzerland, won the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for a fundamental discovery that opened up a new area of biomedical science. His research is on nutrient-activated TOR proteins that regulate cell growth.

"This year's Lasker Medical Research Awards illustrate the power of biomedical investigation to advance human health whether scientists probe basic questions that reveal unforeseen truths or pursue goal-directed projects," Joseph L. Goldstein, MD, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, who is chair of the Lasker Medical Research Awards Jury, said in a news release.

"Basic Discovery Is the Engine of Translational Research"

"Douglas Lowy and John Schiller discovered that a single protein from the capsule of papillomaviruses can self-assemble into virus-like particles, paving the way for HPV vaccines that prevent cervical and other cancers," Dr Goldstein said in the news release.

Their research on animal and human papillomaviruses allowed them to develop a vaccine against the high-risk HPV16 type, which causes a large percentage of HPV malignancies. They demonstrated the vaccine's effectiveness in animals and conducted the first clinical trial of an HPV16 vaccine in humans, proving that it is safe and effective.

Dr Lowy and Dr Schiller won their award for taking "a bold but calculated approach toward a major public-health problem whose solution required them to vault formidable hurdles. They devised a blueprint for several safe and effective vaccines that promise to slash the incidence of cervical cancer and mortality, the fourth most common cancer among women worldwide, as well as other malignancies and disorders that arise from human papillomaviruses," according to information on the Lasker Foundation website.

"Basic discovery is the engine of translational research. Virtually every single one of the major advances in modern biomedicine is based upon fundamental discoveries, going back to basic cloning," Dr Schiller said at the teleconference.

"[I]f it wasn't [for] basic molecular cloning, we wouldn't know the 10 types of viruses out of the hundreds of HPV types that are associated with cancer; we wouldn't have been able to characterize them. Without the basic fundamental discoveries of how to express genes in heterologous systems, we wouldn't have been able to develop this vaccine. Without PCR, we wouldn't have been able to determine that this virus is, beyond any reasonable doubt, the cause of cervical cancer, or be able to establish clinical trials to show that the vaccine prevents cancer," Dr Schiller explained.

"Prevention Works"

"Our 2017 Public Service honoree has been a trusted health resource for families for more than a century," Alfred Sommer, MD, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland, and chair of the Public Service Award Jury, said in the news release. "More than a century ago, a group of women began providing fact-based counseling about family planning in an era when reliable information was scarce. Since then, Planned Parenthood's services have expanded to include essential health and reproductive care and advice for women both in the US and internationally."

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, noted during the teleconference that more than 65 years ago, Planned Parenthood's founder, Margaret Sanger, and obstetrician Bessie Moses, MD, were the first women to receive a Lasker award for contributions they made to the birth control movement. At that time, 1950, birth control was illegal in the United States, and the birth control pill had not yet been invented, Richards said.

"In keeping with the comments by the other honorees, we really do believe that prevention works, and today, largely as a result of progress that's been made over the last several years, we are at a 30-year low for unintended pregnancy ― we're actually at a historic low for teenaged pregnancy in the [United States] ― and at the lowest rate of abortion since the Roe decision. We firmly believe that when folks have access to preventive healthcare, it can change their opportunities and certainly the direction of their healthcare lives," Richards explained.

"We're proud that half of our health centers ― which are nearly 600 in the [United States] ― are in medically underserved communities and in every state in America, and we are constantly looking for other ways to research and expand access to care, whether it's our recent research on self-injectable depo provera as a new birth control option or now increasing online access to birth control and [sexually transmitted infection] treatment around the country," Richards added.

"Excellent Example of the Importance of Curiosity-Driven Research"

"Michael Hall showed that TOR proteins control cell growth in response to nutrients and growth factors and thus established that growth is a highly regulated process that is independent of the cell division cycle," Joseph L. Goldstein, MD, said in the news release.

Dr Michael Hall (Courtesy of the Lasker Foundation)

Dr Hall demonstrated that the TOR system adjusts cell size by responding to the availability of raw nutrients. In doing so, he showed that TOR balances both constructive and destructive activities to adjust cell mass to nutrient supply and other growth signals, including hormones. Interrupting the TOR network contributes to various human illnesses, such as diabetes and cancer, and plays a role in multiple other age-related disorders.

Dr Hall said during the teleconference that his research will help elucidate reasons why cancer cells often become resistant to targeted therapies. Although targeted therapies work, "they don't work very well, in the sense that they don't extend the 5-year survival rates very much. The problem there is that these cancers always develop...resistance to the targeted therapies," he explained.

Other researchers have shown "that the TOR signaling pathway, which we discovered, plays a central role in conferring resistance to targeted therapies. If we can understand how it is that TOR is able to compensate for the block of some other pathway which has been targeted by a drug...and how the TOR pathway is activated to be able to compensate for the targeted pathway, we'll hopefully be able to solve this problem of what's called evasive resistance to targeted therapy," Dr Hall said.

Dr Hall said his work "is an excellent example of the importance of curiosity-driven research."

The awards carry an honorarium of $250,000 for each category and will be presented at a ceremony Friday, September 15, in New York City.

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