2014 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Recipients Announced

They sure turned heads when they announced the Breakthrough Prize back in February. Art Levinson, chairman of both Apple and Genentech; Google cofounder Sergey Brin and his wife, Anne Wojcicki, of genetic mapping startup 23andMe; Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan; and tech investment guru Yuri Milner: The group really shook things up when they stepped forward and announced that, yes, they were pooling their tech influence, smarts, and their millions of dollars to found the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. Now, ten short months later, these six key players and their advisory panel (which includes their first eleven recipients of the prize), are ready to announce their 2014 winners. Let’s take a peek, shall we?

  • Cancer pioneer James Allison, of the MD Anderson Cancer Center at Texas University, discovered a way to engineer a T-cell checkpoint blockade, keeping cancer from spreading by helping the body’s immune system recognize malignant cells. Thanks to this revelation, he has for the first time ever improved a patient’s chances of survival for malignant melanoma— an extremely fast-moving, often fatal form of skin cancer.
  • Neurologist Mahlon DeLong, of Emory University, has made a long career out of understanding the brain circuit misfires that lead to the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Specifically, he has been engaged in brain mapping, identifying the specific parts of the brain that are impacted by Parkinson’s, and engineering therapies to help treat patients.
  • Molecular biologist Michael N. Hall, of the Biozentrum University of Basel, in Switzerland, has for twelve years been delving deeper into his 1991 discovery of TOR, or Target of Rapamycin, which led to substantial revelations about how cell growth takes place. His research is improving treatments for such things as cancer, heart disease, and aging.
  • Biotechnology engineer Robert S. Langer, of the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative  Cancer Research at MIT, has devoted his long career to nanotechnology, specifically, the engineering of new lipids and polymers to enhance drug-delivery systems. Langer’s discoveries have huge implications for the treatment of just about every condition and disorder, so naturally he’s a favored grant recipient.
  • Richard P. Lifton, Sterling Professor of Genetics and Professor of Medicine at Yale, has recently hit upon a big breakthrough in hypertension and hypotension treatment: Severe blood pressure problems, it turns out, can be traced to mutated kidney cells that allow too much— or not enough— sodium chloride into the bloodstream. In addition to this crown jewel of a discovery, Lifton has since 1994 been an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
  • Alexander J. Varshavsky, Howard and Gwen Laurie Smits Professor of Cell Biology at the California Institute of Technology, has, since 1980, been making substantial contributions toward understanding the process of protein degradation, which has vast implications for treating cancer and just about everything else.

After running down the list, you should be able to come away with two takeaway messages: One, if you’re not at least 60 years old, you probably don’t have a chance at the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences; and two, outside-the-box inventors, start-ups, dark horse candidates and others need not apply. These guys have been working in their respective fields for decades, and it’s pretty clear that that’s the kind of commitment the Breakthrough Prize is looking to award.