Jackson Lab scientist wins prestigious Lasker Award

Douglas Coleman and Jeffrey Friedman wearing white lab coats in laboratory with black mouse
Douglas Coleman and Jeffrey Friedman wearing white lab coats in laboratory with black mouse
Posted Sept. 21, 2010, at 4:43 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:07 p.m.
Doug Coleman of the Jackson Lab in 2009 when he won the Shaw Prize.  (Photo courtesy of Jackson Lab)
Doug Coleman of the Jackson Lab in 2009 when he won the Shaw Prize. (Photo courtesy of Jackson Lab)

NEW YORK — Three scientists have won prestigious medical prizes — one for devising a treatment for a major cause of vision loss and two for laying the groundwork for an explosion in obesity research.

The Lasker Awards, worth $250,000 apiece, will be presented Oct. 1 by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation. A fourth scientist is being honored for decades of statesmanship in biomedical sciences.

The Lasker prize for basic research is shared by Douglas Coleman, 78, of the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, and Jeffrey Friedman, 56, of Rockefeller University in New York. They are honored for the discovery of the hormone leptin, which helps regulate appetite and body weight.

In the 1970s, Coleman showed that mice have some sort of appetite-suppressing substance in the blood. Friedman identified the substance in 1994 and named it leptin. People have leptin too, and the research opened new avenues for exploring the biological basis of human obesity, the foundation said.

In 2009, when Coleman was awarded the Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine, the senior staff scientist emeritus said, “The leptin discovery provided the foundation for great advances in the understanding of the central and peripheral regulation of energy balance. We now know that adipose tissue is not merely a storage tissue, but is an endocrine organ that secretes a variety of hormones and cytokines essential for normal development as well as energy homeostasis.

“Louis Pasteur said luck favors the prepared mind. My mind was prepared by many mentors at The Jackson Laboratory.”

The clinical research award goes to Dr. Napoleone Ferrara, 54, of the biotech company Genentech in South San Francisco, Calif. He is honored for discovering a protein called VEGF in 1989 and using it to develop a treatment that significantly improves sight for people with a devastating type of age-related macular degeneration.

More than a million people worldwide have been treated based on Ferrara’s research, the Lasker foundation says. The type of age-related macular degeneration his research addressed — “wet” as opposed to the more common “dry” form — accounts for a tenth or more of the 25 million to 30 million cases of AMD worldwide.

Two drugs based on Ferrara’s VEGF research, Lucentis and the cancer medicine Avastin, are used for wet AMD, attacking it by discouraging the formation of an abnormal growth of blood vessels behind the retina.

A Lasker award for special achievement in medical research goes to Dr. David Weatherall, 77, of Oxford University. He is honored for 50 years of “international statesmanship in biomedical science,” including his research on an inherited anemia called thalassemia.

The Lasker foundation was established in 1942. Albert Lasker was an advertising executive who died in 1952. His wife Mary was a longtime champion of medical research before her death in 1994.

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