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NIH Grantees Win Nobel, Lasker Honors

Seven NIH grantees were recognized with medicine's top prizes this fall; two won shares of Nobel prizes and five were this year's winners of the Lasker Awards, sometimes called "America's Nobels."

Winning Nobel prizes were two grantees. Dr. John B. Fenn, who received support from NIGMS, shares half of the prize in chemistry. He is cited for refining an analytical technique called mass spectrometry, making it possible to analyze large molecules in biological samples. NIGMS provided more than $1.5 million to support Fenn's research from 1984 to 1994, a period during which his prize-winning research was published. Fenn is professor of analytical chemistry at Virginia Commonwealth University. Also winning half of the prize was Koichi Tanaka of Shimadzu Corp. in Kyoto, Japan. He and Fenn are cited "for their development of soft desorption ionization methods for mass spectrometric analyses of biological macromolecules."

Dr. John B. Fenn

Sharing the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was Dr. H. Robert Horvitz, who was cited for characterizing key genes controlling cell death, which is essential for embryonic development and, when improperly controlled, is a hallmark of numerous diseases. NIH has provided more than $7 million to support Horvitz's research over the past 25 years; NIGMS was the principal source of funds, and NCI and NICHD also supported his work.

Dr. H. Robert Horvitz

Horvitz, professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shares the prize with Dr. Sydney Brenner of the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, Calif., and Dr. John E. Sulston, of the Sanger Centre in Cambridge, UK. The three, who worked independently, are recognized "for their discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death."

The 2002 Nobel prize announcements bring the number of NIH-supported laureates to 106.

The Lasker awards are presented by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation in three categories: basic research, clinical medical research and special achievement in medical science.

Two NIGMS grantees, Dr. James Rothman and Dr. Randy Schekman, were honored with the 2002 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research. They shared the award for their discovery of cellular membrane trafficking, a process that cells use to organize their activities and communicate with their environment.

Dr. James Rothman

Rothman is chairman of the cellular biochemistry and biophysics program at Sloan-Kettering Institute, and Schekman is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor in the division of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley. Rothman is also an NCI and NIDDK grantee.

Dr. Randy Schekman

The Lasker Foundation recognized the two for "discoveries revealing the universal machinery that orchestrates the budding and fusion of membrane vesicles — a process essential to organelle formation, nutrient uptake, and secretion of hormones and neurotransmitters."

The 2002 Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research was given to Dr. Willem J. Kolff of the University of Utah and Dr. Belding H. Scribner of the University of Washington for the development of renal hemodialysis, an advance that has revolutionized the treatment of acute and chronic kidney failure.

In the late 1960s, Kolff and his group received several NIAMD contracts to develop and test an improved artificial kidney system. Scribner is a former NIDDK grantee who pioneered the use of dialysis in patients with kidney disease by inventing a shunt that would enable repeated use of hemodialysis. His research also established the minimum level of dialysis needed and the factors that need to be considered in determining the dialysis schedule for individual patients (for example, weight and residual kidney function).

The 2002 Lasker Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science went to Dr. James Darnell, Jr., the Vincent Astor professor at Rockefeller University, for leading breakthroughs in the understanding of gene regulation and for fostering the careers of more than 125 scientists. Darnell is a long-time grantee of NIAID and NCI. He has also received funding from NIGMS and NIDDK.

Dr. James Darnell, Jr.

He received the award for "an exceptional career in biomedical science during which he opened two fields in biology — RNA processing and cytokine signaling — and fostered the development of many creative scientists," according to the citation.

The Lasker Award has been given to 66 scientists who went on subsequently to receive the Nobel prize, including 15 in the past 10 years. NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni was the keynote speaker at the award presentation Sept. 27 in New York City.

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