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2015 Lasker Award winners announced

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation has given the 2015 Lasker Awards to James Allison, Evelyn Witkin, Stephen Elledge and the organization Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders.

Allison won the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for his discoveries regarding checkpoint inhibition and his role in developing Yervoy (ipilimumab from Bristol-Myers Squibb), the first FDA-approved checkpoint inhibitor and, at the time of its approval in 2011, the first drug that enabled long-term survival of some metastatic melanoma patients.

For now, such long-term survival is the fate of a lucky few. About 22 percent of patients treated with Yervoy live for more than a year. But that percentage translates into thousands of patients, and the search for combination treatment that will raise that survival rate is both an active area of research and one where the optimism is palpable.

Elledge and Witkin received the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for “discoveries concerning the DNA-damage response—a fundamental mechanism that protects the genomes of all living organisms.” Witkin studied the DNA damage response in bacteria, while Elledge uncovered its molecular mechanisms in more complex organisms.

The DNA damage response—the means by which cells protect themselves from the constant stream of injuries that their genetic material is subject to—is as basic a biological mechanism as they come. But understanding it also has had medical payoffs. BRCA-mutated cells are exquisitely sensitive to inhibition of the DNA damage repair enzyme poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase, or PARP. Lynparza (olaparib from AstraZeneca) is a PARP inhibitor that is approved for the treatment of BRCA-mutated ovarian cancers, and other PARP inhibitors are in clinical trials.

Allison, 67, is a professor of immunology, chairman of the immunology department and executive director of the immunotherapy platform at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Elledge, 59, is a professor of genetics and medicine at Harvard Medical School and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Witkin, 94, is a bacterial geneticist and professor emerita at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University.

Medecins Sans Frontieres was given the Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award for “bold leadership” in fighting the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, “and for sustained and effective front-line responses to health emergencies,” the Lasker Foundation said in a prepared statement.

Each award includes a $250,000 prize and will be presented in Manhattan, N.Y., on Sept. 18. Many Lasker recipients have gone on to receive Nobel Prizes, including 44 in the last three decades, according to the foundation.

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