Lasker Awards Honor Seminal Advances in Immunology, Breast Cancer

Megan Brooks


September 10, 2019

The 2019 winners of the Lasker Awards were announced today. The awards honor seminal discoveries in immunology and breast cancer therapy.

Max D. Cooper, MD, of Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, and Jacques Miller, MD, PhD, of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Melbourne, Australia, received the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for their discovery of the two distinct classes of lymphocytes, B and T cells.

Lasker Award winners for basic medical research Drs Max D. Cooper (l) and Jacques Miller (r).

This "monumental achievement...provided the organizing principle of the adaptive immune system and truly launched the course of modern immunology," Lasker Foundation President Claire Pomeroy, MD, said during a media briefing.

Sharing the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award are H. Michael Shepard, PhD, formerly of Genentech, Dennis J. Slamon, MD, PhD, the University of California, Los Angeles, and Axel Ullrich, PhD, the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry and formerly of Genentech, for developing trastuzumab, the first targeted therapy for HER2-positive breast cancer.

Lasker Award winners for clinical medical research (l-r) Drs H. Michael Shepard, Dennis J. Slamon, and Axel Ullrich.

"These researchers provided the first demonstration that monoclonal antibodies were a viable and effective strategy to treat solid tumors, opening a new path to develop and deploy antibodies to treat cancer," the Lasker Foundation said in a news release.

Basic Medical Research Award: Modern Immunology

Miller showed that the thymus, previously thought to be a useless organ, is essential for the development of immunity and immune function. Cooper then discovered that there are two distinct cell lineages in the adaptive immune system, B and T cells.

Working with chickens, Cooper found that the bursa of Fabricius, a sac-like lymphatic organ present only in birds, is the source of B cells in birds, and he characterized the different stages of B cell development.

Taking it a step further, Miller established that interactions between B and T cells are essential to their normal maturation and function. Cooper and colleagues later showed that, in mammals, B cells are generated in the liver of the fetus and, after birth, in bone marrow.

"These seminal discoveries defined the field of adaptive immunity and serve as the building blocks for current immunology research and clinical advances," the Lasker Foundation said in a news release.

"This pioneering work has fueled a tremendous number of advances in basic and medical science, several of which have received previous recognition by Lasker Awards and Nobel Prizes, including those associated with monoclonal antibodies, generation of antibody diversity, MHC restriction for immune defense, antigen processing by dendritic cells, and checkpoint inhibition therapy for cancer," the Lasker Foundation said.

Cooper and Miller are "like legends" because they made such a "foundational discovery," immunologist Marc Feldmann, PhD, FMedSci, professor emeritus, University of Oxford, United Kingdom, said in a YouTube video produced by the Lasker Foundation.

"Prior to their discovery, it was very clear that the immune system worked. But there was very little idea of how it worked. Jacques Miller and Max Cooper solved a very important puzzle that is progressively revolutionizing medicine. Their discoveries absolutely changed the world for the better," said Feldmann. (Feldmann shared the 2003 Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research for the discovery of antitumor necrosis factor therapy as an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases.)

Lasker-DeBakey Award: First Targeted Breast Cancer Therapy

The combined efforts of Shepard, Slamon, and Ullrich led to the creation of trastuzumab, the first humanized monoclonal antibody that targets a protein encoded by an oncogene.

Ullrich found a gene, human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 gene (HER2), that makes a receptor that tells cells to grow and divide. Ullrich and Slamon then discovered that extra copies of the HER2 gene are present in 25% of breast cancers. For women with HER2+ breast cancer, disease-free and overall survival are shorter.

Working together, Ullrich, Slamon, and Shepard created an antibody that homed in on the HER2 receptor and suppressed growth of HER2+ breast cancer cells. In clinical trials, trastuzumab, when coupled with chemotherapy, stalled HER2+ breast cancer progression and extended survival compared to chemotherapy alone.

Trastuzumab is now standard therapy for HER2+ breast cancers. Every year, more than 50,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with HER2+ breast cancer, and more than 2.3 million have received the treatment since the US Food and Drug Administration approved it in 1998.

The Lasker Foundation notes that the impact of the development of trastuzumab goes beyond breast cancer by establishing that monoclonal antibodies can combat solid tumors. The innovation also offers a new model for personalized medicine by making available a diagnostic test that identifies the most appropriate patients to treat with a particular intervention.

"By uncovering and exploiting the molecular pathology of a devastating disease, Shepard, Slamon, and Ullrich conceived and executed a new blueprint for drug discovery that has already bestowed tens of thousands of women with time and quality of life," the Lasker Foundation said.

A YouTube video from the foundation traces the work of Shepard, Slamon and Ullrich.

The Lasker awards carry an honorarium of $250,000 for each category. They will be presented at a ceremony on September 20 in New York City.

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