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2017 Lasker Awards Announced: HPV Researchers and Planned Parenthood

New York, NY, September 6, 2017 — Laurie McGinley reports in The Washington Post that The Lasker Awards, among the most prestigious in medicine, will go to two National Cancer Institute (NCI) researchers whose work led to the development of vaccines that prevent cervical cancer, and to Planned Parenthood for providing “essential health services and reproductive care” to millions of women, the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation said today.

In announcing the awards, sometimes referred to as “America’s Nobels,” the foundation lauded the recipients’ efforts to protect and enhance women’s health.

The foundation’s praise of Planned Parenthood seemed designed to counter attacks on the nonprofit by President Donald J. Trump and top congressional Republicans, who want to end all federal funding to the organization.

Planned Parenthood, the nation’s biggest abortion provider, already is barred from using federal dollars for abortions.

The foundation also honored Michael N. Hall, a molecular biologist at the Biozentrum University of Basel, for discoveries involving the role of proteins called TOR in controlling cell growth. It said his discoveries “have broadened our understanding of the fundamental mechanisms that underlie growth, development and aging.”

The prizes, which come with $250,000, are awarded to researchers, clinicians and others who have made major advances in the prevention and treatment of disease.

They are sometimes seen as a harbinger of the Nobel Prize; 87 Lasker laureates have also won Nobels.

The target of the two NCI scientists honored — Douglas Lowy, the institute’s acting director, and John Schiller, a longtime researcher there — was the disease that kills 250,000 women around the world every year.

“They devised a blueprint for several safe and effective vaccines that promise to slash the incidence of cervical cancer and mortality,” the foundation said.

That work by the longtime collaborators, who will share the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, enabled the development of vaccines for the human papillomavirus. HPV also underlies cancers of the vulva, penis, anus and throat.

HPV infections, the most common of sexually transmitted infections, usually go away without treatment. But in the early 1980s, German virologist Harald zur Hausen linked cervical cancer to particular viral strains. “That made crystal clear that HPV was incredibly important,” Lowy said.

The foundation’s mission is “to improve health by accelerating support for medical research through recognition of research excellence, education, and advocacy.”

The foundation “celebrate(s) the contributions of scientists, clinicians, and public servants who have made major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of human disease.   Our programs educate the public and promote scientific collaboration, and we advocate for a healthier world through medical research.”

Mary Woodard Lasker (1901–1994) was a champion of medical research. She and her husband, pioneer advertising executive Albert Davis Lasker (1880–1952), established a legacy of advocacy and philanthropy in support of science and health.

Mrs. Lasker was one of the country’s best known and most effective activists in the cause of increased public funding for medical research.  For decades, she tirelessly persuaded the American public that the national investment in medical research would yield invaluable benefits for human health.

Her simple warning was, “If you think research is expensive, try disease!” Mrs. Lasker’s early efforts focused on developing public support to advance research on cancer.

She founded the Citizens Committee for the Conquest of Cancer and took her cause to Congress and the American public as a leading proponent of the National Cancer Act, which was signed by President Nixon in 1971.

Mrs. Lasker’s ardent advocacy for greater government funding of all the medical sciences contributed to increased appropriations for the National Institutes of Health as well as the creation of several NIH institutes.

Mrs. Lasker’s work transformed the medical research enterprise, which earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. As a permanent monument to her efforts, in 1984 Congress named the Mary Woodard Lasker Center for Health Research and Education at the National Institutes of Health.

For McGinley’s full story, click here.