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Lasker Awards Recognize Propofol Discovery, Women in Science Advocate & Others

Xconomy National — 

The winners of the U.S.’s most prestigious awards in biomedical sciences were announced today, for work in developing propofol, the world’s most widely used anesthetic drug; for key discoveries in RNA biology as well as for championing women in science; and for research in yeast that revealed new mechanisms of gene regulation.

The Lasker Awards are often dubbed “America’s Nobels,” because many past winners have gone on to win Nobel Prizes. The Laskers are given out by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, which funds and promotes biomedical research.

John (Iain) Glen was awarded the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for the discovery of propofol, a powerful and fast-acting anesthetic that is the standard intravenous anesthetic used in the U.S. and around the world. Glen (pictured top left) is a veterinarian by training, and in 1972 joined Imperial Chemistry Industries (ICI, which was later acquired by AstraZeneca) to look for a new anesthetic. Glen screened compounds from ICI’s library in mice and came across propofol, which didn’t accumulate in the body like other anesthetics did, allowing the drug to wear off quickly without causing lingering grogginess and other side effects.

While the drug seemed to work well, the big challenge was to develop a formulation that would allow the compound to travel safely through the bloodstream and into the brain. Earlier formulations caused dangerous reactions in people in clinical trials. Those initial problems led ICI to almost kill the project, Glen said during a press teleconference today. “In the early days, there were some factions in the company that didn’t see the commercial potential [of propofol],” Glen said. But the program survived by a hair, with a crucial 5-to-4 vote in a key meeting.

Glen worked with ICI chemists to develop a safe soybean-oil based emulsion, paving the way toward propofol’s regulatory approval in the UK in 1986 – 13 years after its initial discovery. FDA approval came in 1989.

Today, the drug is on the World Health Organization’s list of “essential medicines,” and is used in operating rooms, emergency departments, and outpatient clinics because patients can quickly recover and go home shortly after their procedures.

Joan Argetsinger Steitz of Yale University received the Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science. Steitz (pictured top right) discovered key molecular details of how ribosomes in the cell use messenger RNA to make proteins, how the cell edits or “splices” messenger RNA before the mRNA is used to make proteins, and other RNA functions.

The award also recognizes Steitz’s work advocating for gender equity in science. She was part of a National of Academy of Sciences committee that issued a 2007 report, Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. She has since given talks promoting diversity in sciences and mentors young women scientists.

In the press conference today, Steitz commented that the increase in the number of women in science “has created a more collegial atmosphere,” compared to when she was starting her career in the 1960s and 1970s. But “we have a long way to go”, Steitz said, particularly in recognizing how being part of an undervalued minority group can shape the behavior of people who feel outnumbered, and can even have physiological effects.

The Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award went to C. David Allis (bottom right) of Rockefeller University and Michael Grunstein (bottom left) of University of California, Los Angeles. They discovered a new level of gene regulation, by showing how histones—proteins that help package DNA in the cell’s nucleus—work to turn genes on and off. They showed how certain chemical modifications of histones, such as the attachment and removal of acetyl chemical groups from histones, are key to gene regulation. Several drugs that target histone-modifying enzymes have been FDA approved for blood cancers, and more are in clinical testing for other types of cancers.