NBC Nightly News on the Breakthrough Prize.
At $3 Million, New Award Gives Medical Researchers a Dose of Celebrity
Published: February 20, 2013 NY Times
Eleven scientists, most of them American, were scheduled to be named on
Wednesday as the first winners of the world’s richest academic prize for
medicine and biology — $3 million each, more than twice the amount of
the Nobel Prize .
The award, the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, was established by
four Internet titans led by Yuri Milner, a Russian entrepreneur and
philanthropist who caused a stir last summer when he began giving physicists $3 million awards .
The others, whom Mr. Milner described as old friends, are Sergey Brin , a co-founder of Google; Anne Wojcicki, the founder of the genetics company 23andMe and Mr. Brin’s wife; and Mark Zuckerberg , the founder of Facebook. They plan to give five awards annually.
Ms. Wojcicki said the prize was meant to reward scientists “who think
big, take risks and have made a significant impact on our lives.”
“These scientists should be household names and heroes in society,” she said.
Many of the first winners have done work on the intricate genetics of
cell growth and how it can go wrong to produce cancer. The new prize was
scheduled to be announced at a news conference in San Francisco, along
with the following recipients:
¶Cornelia I. Bargmann , who investigates the nervous system and behavior at Rockefeller University.
¶David Botstein of Princeton University, who maps disease markers in the human genome.
¶Lewis C. Cantley of Weill Cornell Medical College, who discovered a family of enzymes related to cell growth and cancer.
¶Dr. Hans Clevers of the Hubrecht Institute in the Netherlands, who has studied how processes in adult stem cells can go wrong and cause cancer.
¶Dr. Napoleone Ferrara of the University of California, San Diego, whose work on tumor growth
has led to therapies for some kinds of cancer and eye disease.
¶Titia de Lange , who works on telomeres, the protective tips on the ends of chromosomes, at Rockefeller University.
¶Eric S. Lander of the Broad Institute of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a leader of the Human Genome Project .
¶Dr. Charles L. Sawyers of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who has investigated the signaling pathways that drive a cell to cancer.
¶Dr. Bert Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins University, who discovered a protein that suppresses
the growth of tumors and devised a model for the progression of colon
cancer that is widely used in colonoscopy.
¶Robert A. Weinberg of M.I.T., who discovered the first human oncogene, a gene that when mutated causes cancer.
¶Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University and the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, who
has done groundbreaking work in developing stem cells.
In an interview, Dr. Lander said he was shocked to win the award,
calling it “a staggering amount of money for a scientist.”
“Their idea seems to be to grab society’s attention, to send a message
that science is exciting, important, cool, our future,” he said. “It’s a
very important message here in the U.S.” Dr. Lander said he would use
the prize money to help pay for new approaches to teaching biology
The new awards are in some ways an outgrowth of Mr. Milner’s Fundamental Physics Prizes .
In July, he gave $3 million each to nine theoretical physicists, and
the next round is scheduled to be awarded on March 20 in Geneva.
But even as Mr. Milner was starting the physics prize, he was thinking
of extending the concept to the life sciences. He reached out to Arthur
D. Levinson, the chairman of Apple and a former chief executive of
Genentech, the biotech company, and Dr. Levinson, in consultation with
his colleagues, helped Mr. Milner select the first Breakthrough winners.
These winners will form a committee that will select future winners,
Mr. Milner said.
The founders said their goal was to “move the needle” of public
awareness of scientists who have spent their lives advancing human
With so much focus on sports and movie celebrities, Dr. Levinson said,
the prizewinners “can share the stage with the people who on some deeper
level have made important contributions.”
The founders said they hoped to attract more sponsors and increase the
number of annual winners. Anyone can send a nomination to the
foundation’s new Web site.
There are no age or other limits on who can win. Any number of people
can share an award. And in particular, Mr. Milner said, there are no
limits on how many times one individual can win. “If you’re Einstein,”
he said, “you will be getting three.”