The Lasker Awards, sometimes called the “American Nobels” because 85 of the awardees have gone on to win that international honor, were announced by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation on Wednesday. Each prize comes with $250,000.
One of the nation’s most prestigious prizes in medicine will go to Planned Parenthood and two scientists who played a crucial role in developing the vaccine to combat HPV, a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cervical cancer. A third honor will go to a Swiss molecular biologist who made a groundbreaking discovery about cell growth.
The Lasker Awards, sometimes called the “American Nobels” because 85 of the awardees have gone on to win the international honor, were announced by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation on Wednesday. Each prize comes with $250,000.
The citation for the Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award credits Planned Parenthood “for providing essential health services and reproductive care to millions of women for more than a century” and for helping “men as well.”
The award takes the Laskers, usually known for honoring groundbreaking scientific advances and humanitarian efforts, into more political territory. Planned Parenthood is facing escalating threats from President Donald Trump and the Republican leadership in Congress to bar the organization from receiving federal funds, a move that could force the closure of clinics across the country.
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“We are thrilled to be honored,” Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Foundation of America, said in a statement. “Planned Parenthood has substantially improved health outcomes for women — and we will keep fighting for our patients, no matter what.”
Dr. Douglas R. Lowy and Dr. John T. Schiller received the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for technological advances that enabled the development of human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines, such as Gardasil, which are typically given to adolescents before they are sexually active. The award is a high-profile endorsement of the vaccine, which has been adopted at lower rates in the United States than other childhood vaccines.
According to a statement from the Lasker Foundation, the pair “took a bold but calculated approach toward a major public-health problem whose solution required them to vault formidable hurdles.”
Since the vaccine was approved by the FDA in 2006, it has been introduced in dozens of countries. The possibility for impact, many believe, is highest in the developing world where cervical cancer continues to be a primary killer and the possibility of catching HPV early through a Pap smear — as often happens countries with more advanced health care systems — is unlikely.
Despite its proven effectiveness and an increase in nationwide HPV immunization rates, some states have lagged behind. In Kansas, for example, only 51 percent of girls and 36 percent of boys have received the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Explanations tend to highlight the fact that parents may be uncomfortable vaccinating their children for something that is associated with a sexually transmitted disease.
Lowy and Schiller, who have been working together for about 30 years at the National Institutes of Health, said that the award highlighted what is possible when the government funds scientific research.
“It’s a classic example where we did something that companies weren’t doing because it was too risky,” said Schiller, referring to the perceived likelihood of failure.
Making a vaccine does not come down to one big “aha” moment; rather, it is a sequence of encouraging developments, they said. One sign that they were on the right path came in the 1990s when Lowy walked into a lab in Paris, where he was collaborating with the Pasteur Institute, and took a look at their rabbits.
Those in one group were spotted with warts, caused by the papillomavirus, while the rabbits in the group that had been given the vaccine did not have a single blemish.
“It was really dramatic,” Lowy said.
Schiller said a high point in his career was taking his daughter to get the vaccine he helped create.
“We first came up with the idea of the vaccine when she was born and it became available when she was 13 years old,” he said. “So, that’s how long it took to develop the commercial vaccine.”
Dr. Michael N. Hall received the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for figuring out that cell growth is controlled by the nutrient-activated TOR protein. It plays a role in life span and diseases, including diabetes and cancer, and the breakthrough has been praised for its far-reaching medical implications.
“Cells are the unit of life, but I think they define life,” Hall said in a video produced by the Lasker Foundation, adding that “I like science, and I think science likes me.”
The awards will be presented in Manhattan on Sept. 15.