The Lasker Foundation’s annual awards for medical research honor the inventors of optical coherence tomography, DeepMind’s AlphaFold program and a legendary Dutch cancer researcher.
Many ophthalmologists’ offices around the country are home to a machine that enables doctors to take advantage of optical coherence tomography (OCT), a method of imaging the retina and other tissues in the eye. These OCT machines give doctors insight into the three-dimensional structures of their patients’ eyes, help them diagnose diseases and can even help save their patients’ sight.
The genesis of OCT machines began in the lab of Dr. James Fujimoto, who was inspired by advances in high-speed photography and lasers to start developing potential methods that would enable doctors to get better images of what was happening inside of people’s bodies. The goal, he told Forbes, was to develop something akin to ultrasound using light instead of sound.
In the late 1980s, a MD-PhD student in Fujimoto’s lab named David Huang began working on the problem. He was successful at making some measurements in eye tissue from a cow, but the process wasn’t efficient enough to meet the needs of doctors. So the two scientists turned to Eric Swanson, who was developing techniques for laser communications and fiberoptic networks to see if these technologies could be applied to their idea for imaging.
In 1991, the trio published their first paper describing the technique they invented. “In less than a year, we were able to develop this new imaging technology, which in retrospect was pretty unusual,” Huang told Forbes.
Since the publication of that first paper, OCT has grown into a nearly $2 billion market. Doctors now routinely use the technology to diagnose diseases such as glaucoma, diabetes-related vision impairment and even coronary artery disease. “The impact on public health can be very large,” Fujimoto said. “If you can preserve vision, for example, to the point where patients can continue to drive a car, that’s a major change in lifestyle and an impact on quality of life.”
On Thursday, the Lasker Foundation awarded Fujimoto, Huang and Swanson its annual $250,000 award for Clinical Medical Research. The Foundation has been handing out its annual awards since 1945, which this year include two other categories: Basic Medical Research and Special Achievement in Medical Science. Many winners of these prizes have often gone on to win other scientific honors, including the Nobel Prize.
Basic Research Award Goes To DeepMind’s Alphafold
AI company DeepMind, an Alphabet subsidiary, is probably best known to the public for its work using sophisticated machine learning algorithms to beat top human players at strategic games like Chess and Go. But the company’s CEO Demis Hassibis and researcher John Jumper were honored with a Lasker Award for Basic Research for the company’s program AlphaFold, which uses a similar machine learning approach to help predict the complicated chemistry of how proteins fold into themselves. This led to major papers in the scientific journal Nature and has already helped stimulate new pathways of drug discovery.
“It’s an honour to receive this award in recognition of the work of our team,” Jumper said in a statement. “The work on AlphaFold has been such an incredible experience, and we’re only just beginning to see how AI will help us transform biology.”
Special Achievement Award Honors 50 Years Of Medical Research
This year the Lasker Foundation awarded a Special Achievement Award to Dutch scientist Piet Borst from the Netherlands Cancer Institute. Over his 50-year career, Borst has made a number of discoveries. In the 1960s, he and his collaborators discovered genes that were key to understanding how parasites are able to evade the immune system in diseases such as sleeping sickness.
In the 1980s, Borst began studying the genetic causes for why people are resistant to certain chemotherapies, which had inhibited the ability to deliver cancer drugs to patients. His discoveries in this area have helped researchers figure out how to more effectively make sure that chemotherapies work against certain cancers. These studies in turn led to a better understanding of the biochemistry behind a genetic disorder called pseuoxanthoma elasticum (PXE), work that may help to develop potential treatments for the disease.
In addition to his scientific work, the Lasker Prize also honors Borst for his decades of leadership in a variety of cancer-related organizations, including the Institute of Molecular Pathology, the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research and the Netherlands Cancer Institute.
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