The prestigious Lasker Awards for Medical Research and for Public Service this year honor three physicians for their advancements in research and treatment and actor Christopher Reeve for his contributions to medical advocacy. The Lasker Awards are sometimes called the Nobel Prizes of the medical community.
Eight-and-a-half years ago, Mr. Reeve was nearly decapitated when he fell from a horse he was riding. The actor, best known for portraying Superman, has been paralyzed from the shoulders down ever since, and has become a strong advocate for stem cell research and other therapies that could help paraplegics someday walk again. Opponents of stem cell research say cloning human cells results in destroying human embryos.
Accepting the Mary Woodward Lasker Award for Public Service in Support of Medical Research and the Health Sciences, Mr. Reeve said religious objections to stem cell research must not influence scientific progress.
"When the time comes to make decisions about public policy, there is an undue influence from politics and religion, particularly in the case of stem cell research that is to the detriment of patient outcomes," he said.
Dr. Robert Roeder of Rockefeller University was awarded the Basical Medical Research award for pioneering studies about gene transcription, allowing scientists to learn about mapping genes in animal cells.
A team of two immunologists, Australian Dr. Marc Feldmann and Sir Ravinder Maini, who is British, shared the award for Clinical Medical Research for their breakthrough treatment for auto-immune disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis.
The team first isolated the molecule that attracts extra cells and causes the inflammation and joint pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis, then found the antibody that can block that molecule from attracting cells.
Dr. Craig Thompson, presenting the award, says the team's approach was initially viewed with skepticism. "The brilliant use of one of the immune system's own defense systems to treat an auto-immune disease has demonstrated that Maini and Feldmann are modern day medical firefighters," he emphasized. "Their use of antibodies to treat rheumatoid arthritis is truly an example of fighting fire with fire."
About 500,000 people have been able to treat rheumatoid arthritis by using the drugs developed by the research team. The procedure involves injecting medicines under the skin or through intravenous tubes, and can ease the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis by thirty to seventy percent. The antibody treatments are also effective in battling other auto-immune disorders, like Crohn's disease (bowel disease) and psoriasis.
But Dr. Maini pointed out that the treatment is not a cure, nor is it universally effective. "Interestingly enough, it doesn't work for all immune-mediated diseases," he said. "For example there is a disease called multiple sclerosis, for which we had thought this might also be beneficial. But so far, the trials suggest it may be aggravating the disease in patients with multiple sclerosis."
Dr. Feldmann said he is encouraged that his team's medical advances have been able to improve quality of life for many rheumatoid arthritis sufferers, and he stressed that more work remains to be done.
"This is one of the first new treatments based on detailed understanding of the molecules driving the disease process. But this will be far from the last," he said. "There are many more coming up, where science-based understanding of a disease mechanism will enable us to develop much more effective treatments."
The Lasker Awards are named in honor of the late philanthropists Albert and Mary Lasker.
Photo courtesy the Lasker Foundation