Lasker Awards Honor Development of Propofol, Genetic Research

Megan Brooks

September 11, 2018

The 2018 winners of the Lasker Awards were announced Tuesday, with awards honoring discoveries concerning histone modification and gene expression, the development of the widely used anesthetic propofol, and leadership in RNA biology and scientific mentorship of women.

"With these awards, we honor innovative scientific thinking and years of dedicated, meticulous research that expanded knowledge and improved health," said Claire Pomeroy, MD, president of the Lasker Foundation. "These researchers made groundbreaking discoveries, but not all at once. Their achievements came piece by piece, with each step depending upon continued funding and societal support."

C. David Allis, PhD, Rockefeller University, New York City, and Michael Grunstein, PhD, University of California, Los Angeles, are recipients of the 2018 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, which honors scientists whose fundamental discoveries have opened up a new field of research.

Dr C. David Allis and Dr Michael Grunstein. Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation

The two scientists were honored for their discoveries of how gene expression is influenced by chemical modification of histones, the proteins that package DNA within chromosomes.

Through "tour-de-force" genetic studies in yeast, Grunstein showed that histones dramatically influence gene activity within living cells and laid the groundwork for understanding the pivotal role of particular amino acids in this process, according to a Lasker Foundation news release.

Allis uncovered an enzyme that attaches a specific chemical group to a particular amino acid in histones, and this histone-modifying enzyme turned out to be an established gene coactivator whose biochemical capabilities had eluded researchers. "Grunstein and Allis unveiled a previously hidden layer of gene control and broke open a new field," the Lasker Foundation said.

Essential Medicine

John B. Glen, PhD, now retired from AstraZeneca, is the recipient of the 2018 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, which honors investigators who have pioneered major advances that have improved the lives of millions of people.

Dr John B. Glen. Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation

Glen, a veterinarian originally, is being honored for his discovery and development of propofol, a chemical whose rapid action and freedom from residual effects have made it the most widely used agent for induction of anesthesia throughout the world. In 2016, the World Health Organization deemed propofol an "essential medicine"; at the time, more than 190 million people had received the drug, the Lasker Foundation said.

The 2018 Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science, which honors research accomplishments and scientific statesmanship, goes to Yale University's Joan Argetsinger Steitz, PhD.

Dr Joan Argetsinger Steitz. Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation

Steitz, the Sterling Professor of Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University, has provided leadership in biomedical science for 4 decades, the Lasker Foundation notes. She has made pioneering discoveries about RNA biology, generously mentored budding scientists, and vigorously and passionately supported women in science.

Steitz has generated a cascade of discoveries that have illuminated wide-ranging and unanticipated functions for RNA molecules within our cells, and she has served as a role model in multiple ways, especially for rising female investigators, the Lasker Foundation said. Steitz has also campaigned for full inclusion of all members of the scientific community, fueled by the conviction that reaching this goal is necessary to ensure a robust and innovative scientific enterprise.

The Lasker awards carry an honorarium of $250,000 for each category and will be presented at a ceremony Friday, September 21, in New York City.

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