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Billionaires Anoint Biogeeks

by Matthew HerperForbes
February 20th, 2013

Yuri Milner

Hey Nobel Prize in Medicine! You’ve got competition. This morning, a bevy of techoscenti billionaires including Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin announced the first recipients of their Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, a $3 million award  ”recognizing excellence in research aimed at curing intractable diseases and extending human life.” This year, there are 11 recipients, meaning a total $33 million payout, but in the future five annual awards will be planned, totalling $15 million.

The award is the brainchild of billionaire Yuri Milner, an early Facebook investor, who gives a similar prize in physics. Aside from Brin and Zuckerberg, he is joined by: Anne Wojcicki, Brin’s wife and the chief executive of 23andMe, the consumer genetics startup; Priscilla Chan, Zuckerberg’s wife and a physician who is in residency; and Art Levinson, the chairman of the board at Apple who previously, as chief executive of Genentech, was the most respected leader in the pharmaceutical industry. The awards are being announced formally later today at  conference led by Susan Desmond-Hellmann, once Levinson’s right-hand woman and now chancellor of UCSF.

“I believe this new prize will shine a light on the extraordinary achievements of the outstanding minds in the field of life sciences, enhance medical innovation, and ultimately become a platform for recognizing future discoveries,” Levinson said in a prepared statement. Added Brin: “Curing a disease should be worth more than a touchdown.”

So what brain trust did this brain trust decide to present checks to? Interestingly, though not surprisingly, it’s a list that focuses on those who have actually changed medicine and biotechnology, even inventing new drugs. One is even one of Levinson’s old employees. The winners:

Cornelia I. Bargmann of Rockefeller University studies a primitive worm, C. elegans, which has only 302 neurons in its brain. The idea is that by studying this tiny brain, we can learn how brains work, and Bargmann’s opinions are sought out by neuroscientists and psychiatrists.

David Botstein of Princeton University developed, in 1980, a method for discovering disease genes that was used to find the BRCA breast cancer gene, a test for which is the main product of Myriad Genetics, and the genetic mutation that causes Huntington’s. Eighteen years later he led a team that figured out new ways to analyze data from the tiny “DNA chips” that were revolutionizing genetics. He’s now studying how yeast consume food and create energy, an effort that could lead to a new understanding of lots of biological problems, including how cancer cells eat.

Lewis C. Cantley of Weill Cornell Medical College, who discovered an enzyme called PI3 kinase that is a key drug target for new medicines against cancer. He is a co-founder of Agios Pharmaceuticals and a pioneer in the field of Systems Biology, which tries to put the pieces looked at by geneticists and molecular biologists into a more coherent whole.

Dr. Hans Clevers, director of the Hubrecht Institute for Developmental Biology and Stem Cell Research in the Netherlands, who has been one of the leading figures in the discovery that stem cells play a role in the development of cancer.

Dr. Napoleone Ferrara of the University of California, San Diego, at Genentech did work that led the creation of Avastin, for colon and other cancers, and Lucentis, for age-related macular degeneration. Both drugs work by stopping a process called angiogenesis, which in feeds tumors and, in eye disease, results in too much blood entering the eye and causing damage.

Titia de Lange of Rockefeller University studies telomeres, the protective ends of the chromosomes that contain human DNA. When these degrade, they can lead to some types of cancer.

Eric S. Lander of the Broad Institute of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lander is most famous for his leadership role in the Human Genome Project and for his work running the Broad Institute, which has become one of the hot spots for genetic research. But he’s also responsible for helping to develop a molecular taxonomy of cancer and for mentoring many of the top researchers in the field.

Dr. Charles L. Sawyers It’s not just that Sawyers, of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, looks into the molecular signals that drive a cell to cancer, it’s that he’s twice played a key role in getting drugs that affect those signals to patients. The first time was with Gleevec, from Novartis, which started off the race for DNA-targeted cancer drugs. The second, more recently, was Medivation’s Xtandi, for prostate cancer patients, which was recently approved.

Dr. Bert Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins University, devised a model for the progression of colon cancer that is widely used in colonoscopy. More recently he is one of the very top minds looking at how genetic alterations lead to cancer.

Robert A. Weinberg of M.I.T., discovered the first human gene that, when mutated, causes cancer, setting up science to understand cancer as a series of genetic mutations.

Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University and the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, figured out how to make what are known as induced pluripotent stem cells. These resemble embryonic stem cells, which can in theory turn into any part of the body, but they are far more useful for studying what goes wrong to make disease happen. In a few years they have already revolutionized biology.

Next year, this year’s winners will help pick the next batch of luminaries.

Is this a good way for Zuckerberg et. al to spend their cash? There’s no way to argue with that list: those are great people to be giving an award and they all deserve it. I’m mostly thrilled at the idea that  Vogelstein and Bargmann and Yamanaka are all going to be flush.

But I have trouble believing that this award is going to make any of them much more famous. Most people reading this will probably remember Milner and Brin more than Sawyers and Napo Ferrera. And, as Forbes contributor David Shaywitz noted on Twitter, among biologists these folks are already idolized. What they all need are funds to keep them in the field, not new people to look up to. Brin is speaking my language when he says that curing disease should be worth more than a touchdown. Even with prizes that big, I’m not sure it is.

Still, the awards are a good step. Let’s hope that as years pass, they draw more and more attention to the amazing things happening in science and medicine.

Update: I interviewed Art Levinson about the prize.



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