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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 online.

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 knowledge.

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.”


State of the Fight: Cervical Cancer 2013

by Andrea P. Myers, M.D., Ph.D.
State of the Fight: Cervical Cancer 2013
Andrea P. Myers, M.D., Ph.D., is a medical oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where she treats patients with advanced gynecologic malignancies (ovarian, endometrial, cervical and vulvar cancers). Myers is directing clinical trials that use PI3K pathway inhibitors in gynecologic malignancies.


This Cervical Cancer Awareness month, I want you to remember three words: screening, screening, screening. And, if you’re the right age, one more: vaccination.

First, some facts. Cervical cancer forms in tissues of the cervix, the organ that connects a woman’s uterus and vagina. Cervical cancer was a leading cause of cancer-related death among women in the early 20th century. However, the introduction of routine screening has had a tremendous impact in the United States, reducing cervical cancer incidence and mortality by 75% and 70% respectively. Currently, around 12,000 American women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year and around 4,700 will die from the disease. Worldwide, cervical cancer remains a leading cancer killer, particularly in areas where women do not have access to screening.

The bad news is that cervical cancer can be difficult to detect at home. Unlike, say, breast or testicular cancer, which is often detected by a lump, cervical cancer is usually slow-growing, with few symptoms (though over time women may notice abnormal vaginal bleeding, increased vaginal discharge, pelvic pain, and pain during sex).

The good news, as you’ve probably pieced together by now, is that cervical cancer can be detected with regular Pap tests. If you haven’t had one, a Pap test is a common procedure in which cells are scraped from the cervix and looked at under a microscope. The Pap test can show if you have an infection, abnormal cervical cells, or cervical cancer.

When it comes to getting a Pap test, most women can follow these guidelines: Starting at age 21, have a Pap test every 2 years. If you are 30 or older and have had 3 normal Pap tests for 3 years in a row, talk to your doctor about spacing out Pap tests to every 3 years. If you are over 65 years old, ask your doctor if you can stop having Pap tests. Of course, there are a variety of factors that influence how often you should get screened, so talk with your doctor about what is best for you.

On to vaccination. Cervical cancer is almost always caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, so HPV vaccination for both girls and boys (to prevent passing the virus) is expected to further reduce this risk. The vaccines are given as three shots to protect against infection and HPV-related diseases, including cervical cancer. Two vaccines (Cervarix and Gardasil) have been shown to protect against most cervical cancers in women. One vaccine (Gardasil) also protects against genital warts and has been shown to protect against cancers of the anus, vagina, and vulva. According to the CDC, HPV vaccines offer the greatest health benefits to individuals who receive all three doses before having any type of sexual activity. That’s why HPV vaccination is recommended for preteen girls and boys at age 11 or 12 years, up through age 26.

I’m both a physician and a scientist. I was drawn to the field of cancer research after working under Dr. Jeffrey Murray on the Human Genome Project and seeing firsthand how genetic knowledge can be applied to understanding human disease. As an investigator with the SU2C’s PI3K Dream Team, our team is tasked with developing clinical techniques that may lead to therapeutic combinations in a variety of women’s cancers. I am also a physician with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. I see patients with advanced gynecological cancer as well as work in the lab to better understand the molecular underpinnings of these cancers to help us develop better treatments. My aim is to understand how the individual genetic aspects of one person’s cancer can direct us to the right and best therapy for that person.

Because of the benefits of cervical cancer screening, I don’t see nearly as many of these patients as I do with ovarian and endometrial cancer. But this is an important reminder that screening works! It’s also a reminder that we need to develop better screening techniques for other gynecological cancers as well. This week, a study demonstrating that DNA from ovarian and endometrial cancers can sometimes be detected from Pap specimens was published by a team including Johns Hopkins’ Dr. Bert Vogelstein, a Genomics Advisory Committee member of the SU2C Melanoma Dream Team . This may be a new research avenue to improve detection of these others important cancers too.

Overall, the best way to make an impact on the global burden of cervical cancer is to provide women all over the world better access to routine gynecological care. We also are working on improving treatments for women who do develop cervical cancer. Studies evaluating the comprehensive genome of cervical cancers are underway and results should be out soon. These may lead us to targets for therapy, beyond the current treatment options of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of the three.

In the meantime, see your doctors regularly. Get your Pap smears. Get the HPV vaccine. Practice safe sex. Know your body. And don’t be embarrassed to talk to your doctor about the stuff happening down there, such as irregular bleeding, new discharge, or pain with intercourse. That uncomfortable conversation could save your life. 


Two papers published in Cancer Discovery from our Stand Up To Cancer PI3K Dream Team. The scientific findings contained in these two papers influenced the design of our recently launched historic clinical trial.  This trial treats two diseases (breast cancer and ovarian cancer) that required the persuasion of two pharmaceutical companies (Novartis and AstraZeneca) to combine two unapproved drugs (BKM120 and Olaparib). This represents a new paradigm, a changed culture – a clinical trial enrolling in one-year from lab observations to patient participation.

Read more about these discoveries at:  and

"Standing Up to Cancer" by Pam Zwemer. Posted on Huffington Post on September 4, 2012.  A Testimonial.  (article).


"The New Backbone of Clinical Trials Design"  by Douglas A. Levine, MD (MSKCC).  'Perspective' published by NIH on The Cancer Genome Atlas website.  The New Backbone of Clinical Trial Design - TCGA

Oncology Times article featuring a patient on one of our PI3K Dream Team's Clinical Trials.


Lew Cantley's appearance on 60 Minutes.

Stand Up To Cancer Scientific Summit 2012





SU2C's PI3K Pathway Dream Team

This is a signature research paper from our STAND UP TO CANCER PI3K Dream Team.  It serves as an example of how genetically engineered mouse models can provide a powerful framework for identifying mechanisms that circumvent oncprotein inhibition.  Understanding this mechanism greatly improves development of target therapies; specifically in our work in women's cancers.

Published in Nature Medicine and chosen for evalutation by Faculty of 1000Faculty of 1000 identifies and evaluates the most important articles in biology and medical research publications.  Articles are selected by a peer-nominated global 'Faculty' composed of the world's leading scientists and clinicians.  You can also read more about it at Stand Up to Cancer.

PI3K Team Leaders Cantley and Sawyers talk about the science behind their project focusing on women's cancers.


Team progress over the first nine months and looking ahead.


Big Think - Special Series on Breakthroughs in Cancer


In Search of a Target, In Search of a Cure

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Targeting the PI3K Pathway in Women's Cancers
Stand Up To Cancer American Association for Cancer Research