Scientists win the world's richest prize for medicine

Prize aims to elevate profile of innovative scientists

February 21, 2013

Eleven scientists on Wednesday became the first winners of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, a $3 million cash prize created by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other internet moguls to honor accomplishments in medicine and biology.

The prize was established by four internet moguls: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, 23andMe founder Anne Wojcicki, and Russian entrepreneur Yuri Miler. It honors "scientists who think big, take risks, and have made a significant impact on our lives," Wojcicki says.

The founders say they started the award to "move the needle" of public awareness for scientists, according to the New York Times. "[The founders'] idea seems to be to grab society's attention, to send a message that science is exciting, important, cool, our future," says Eric Lander—a scientist at the Broad Institute of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—who received one of the 11 prizes for his leadership on the Human Genome Project.

The other 10 recipients of the reward are:

  • Rockefeller University's Cornelia Bargmann for her work on behavior and the nervous system;
  • Princeton University's David Botstein for his research into disease markers in the human genome;
  • Weill Cornell Medical College's Lewis Cantley for his discovery of enzymes related to cell growth and cancer;
  • Hubrecht Institute in the Netherlands's Hans Clevers for his work on adult stem cell growth and cancer;
  • University of California-San Diego's Napoleone Ferrara for tumor research that contributed to cancer treatments;
  • Rockefeller's Titia de Lange for her work on telomeres;
  • Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center's Charles Sawyer for his work on signaling pathways that can make cells cancerous;
  • Johns Hopkins University's Bert Vogelstein for his discovery of a protein that suppresses tumor growth and a model for the progression of colon cancer;
  • MIT's Robert Weinberg  for his discovery of the first oncogene (a gene that causes cancer after a mutation); and
  • Kyoto University's Shinya Yamanaka for his work on stem cells.

Going forward, the award founders expect to give out five awards per year, although they hope to add more sponsors and increase the number of awards in the future (Overbye, New York Times, 2/20; Krieger, San Jose Mercury News, 2/20).

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