Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences

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The Breakthrough Prize was founded by Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg, Priscilla Chan, Yuri Milner, Julia Milner, Jack Ma, and Pony Ma. It was meant to reward outstanding breakthroughs and achievements in 3 fields – life sciences, physics, and math – as well as to inspire the next generation of scientists.

The 2019 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences was awarded to 4 outstanding scientists for their achievements in life sciences.

1) Drug for SMA - Bennett and Krainer

Bennett and Krainer were able to develop a new drug for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) which is the leading genetic cause of infant death. SMA affects motor nerve cells in the spinal cord which interferes with everyday activities and reduces the ability to eat, walk, and talk. In developing the first FDA approved drug for SMA – Spinraza (nusinessen) – they focused on RNA splicing and activating the SMN2 gene. This new drug can help save a lot of lives and reduce the fatalities of SMA.

2) Cancer Cells and Abnormal Chromosome Numbers - Amon

Cells in foreign environments have problems dividing chromosomes. This finding is applicable to cancer as well as provide implications for growing human tissues. With cancer cells, the tumor changes the cell’s external environment which can alter chromosome division. This new insight can help scientists understand why cancer cells have abnormal chromosome numbers. Furthermore, it also provides insights into growing human tissues. Currently, scientists face the problem of grown cells having difficulties splitting chromosomes equally during cell division which leads to genetic errors. While they don’t quite know how chromosome division is influenced by the external environment, this discovery can lead to breakthroughs in cancer research and treatment, as well as aid scientists in growing human tissue that can be used to develop other treatments.

3) STORM - Zhuang

Imaging tools are important for understanding cellular function and dysfunction and can provide a detailed image of molecular interaction. Zhuang was able to develop a single-molecular-based super-resolution light microscopy method that allows the precise molecular position to be determined and provides a super-resolution image. Stochastic Optical Reconstruction Microscopy (STORM) can be applied to cell biology and neurobiology – aiding the discovery of unknown cellular structures and provide insights in 3D structure and dimensions of chromatin and chromosomes. STORM is a tool scientists can use to help them reach new discoveries and a better understanding of cells.

4) Immune Checkpoint Blockade Therapy - Chen

The body has two immune systems – innate (sense initial threats) and adaptive (battles recurring threats) and the bridge between these two systems is important. Immunotherapy aims to help the immune system recognize cancer cells. They do this by maneuvering around cancer cells’ ability to produce molecular barriers to keep them from being detected. Dr. Fu and Dr. Chen have been working on improving immune checkpoint blockade therapy and making it more effective. Dr. Chen recently discovered the importance of the cGAS – an innate immune sensor that can alert the immune system to release T-cells to battle cancer cells – and the vital part it can play in immunotherapy. This breakthrough in cancer treatment research can lead to new, potentially more effective cancer treatments that can help save more lives.


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