This year’s Lasker Awards, the US’s most prestigious biomedical honor, are going to five scientists whose work led to a critical breast cancer treatment and significant basic research advances that have helped pave the way for immunotherapy.
H. Michael Shepard, Dennis Slamon, and Axel Ullrich won the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for inventing trastuzumab (Herceptin), the Genentech antibody drug for HER2-positive breast cancer, a form of the disease that afflicts more than 50,000 women each year.
Herceptin is the first monoclonal antibody to target a cancer-causing protein—HER2, over-expressed on some breast cancer tumors. It has been followed by several other drugs for breast and other cancers, and has been taken by more than 2.3 million women since the FDA first approved the drug in 1998. Shepard and Ulrich did their Herceptin investigations while at Genentech; Slamon did his at UCLA, where he is still conducts research.
The work of Shepard, Slamon, and Ullrich stems from an explosion of research in the 1970s into genetic drivers of cancer—and thus drugs that might block their activity. Ullrich and former Genentech colleague (and CEO) Arthur Levinson discovered and named the HER2 gene in 1985 while other groups were showing its expression was amplified in breast and salivary gland tumors. They connected with Slamon, and together found that overexpressed HER2 was leading to the formation of tumors and worse health outcomes.
The Genentech scientists developed an antibody drug to target HER2. The drug, Herceptin, was ultimately approved and has since become a mainstay of breast cancer care. “It was a two-way street; It was a great collaboration in terms of the scientists,” Slamon told the journal Cell in this interview. A number of HER2-targeting therapies have since followed.
The Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, meanwhile, has gone to Max Cooper of the Emory University School of Medicine and Jacques Miller of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. Both scientists changed the course of immunology research by discovering immune cells known as B and T cells. These cells were discovered in studies of chickens and mice in the 1960s, and were originally called “bursa” and “thymus” derived cells before their names were shrunk to B and T cells.
The landmark work led to a “sea change…in immunologic thinking,” according to an editorial published this morning in the New England Journal of Medicine by Ronald Germain, the Chief of the National Institute of Laboratory of Immune System Biology at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
A slew of biomedical advances have occurred since the discoveries of Cooper and Miller, among them the cancer immunotherapies that have recently started to change the way a number of tumors are treated. “The experimental studies and writings of these two investigators were responsible for establishing a new way to view the cellular basis of adaptive immunity,” Germain wrote. “Indeed, one might even wonder why it has taken so long for their work to be recognized through a major award.”
The non-profit Lasker Foundation has also awarded its Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award to Gavi, which helps provide affordable access to childhood vaccines around the world. Gavi has helped vaccinate more than 760 million children globally, saving more than 13 million lives.
Photo of the Albert and Mary Lasker Award Statue courtesy of the Lasker Foundation.