Kaelin Honored with Lasker Award

HMS scientist awarded for pivotal discovery in cells' response to oxygen deprivation

Harvard Medical School Professor of Medicine William G. Kaelin Jr. has been named a recipient of the 2016 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research from the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation. The Lasker is one of the world's most prestigious biomedical research awards.

William Kaelin Jr. Image: Courtesy Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
William Kaelin Jr. Image: Courtesy Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

Kaelin, based at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, was cited along with Peter J. Ratcliffe of the University of Oxford/Francis Crick Institute and Gregg L. Semenza of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, for the discovery of the pathway by which cells from humans and most animals sense and adapt to changes in oxygen availability—a process essential for survival.

"Dr. Kaelin is an outstanding physician, scientist and educator," said Barbara J. McNeil, acting dean of Harvard Medical School. We are very proud of Bill's achievements. I am delighted that his extraordinary dedication, his years of hard work and his remarkable discoveries have been recognized by the Lasker Foundation."

"Bill Kaelin is an extraordinary researcher and highly deserving of this honor. His work has guided and inspired cancer researchers and caregivers all over the world in understanding the mysteries of cancer," said Edward J. Benz Jr., president and CEO of Dana-Farber.

Kaelin's research explores why mutations in genes known as tumor-suppressor genes can lead to cancer. His study of a tumor-suppressor gene called VHL provided key insights into the body's response to changes in oxygen levels.

Kaelin discovered that VHL helps control the levels of a protein known as HIF, which ratchets up or down the response to low oxygen, such as in the production of red blood cells and new blood vessels.

His subsequent discovery of a molecular switch that renders HIF oxygen-sensitive was critical to the understanding of how cells react to variations in oxygen level.

"The work of this year's honorees epitomizes the power and impact of dedication to rigorous and innovative medical research,” said Claire Pomeroy, president of the Lasker Foundation. “These outstanding advances have illuminated fundamental aspects of life, developed a cure for a deadly disease, and raised public engagement with science."

Kaelin received his medical degree from Duke University in 1982 and was a house officer and chief resident in internal medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He became a medical oncology clinical fellow at Dana-Farber and a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. David Livingston, where he began his studies of tumor suppressor proteins. Kaelin was named an independent investigator at Dana-Farber in 1992 and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator in 2002.

"The 2016 Lasker winners combined exceptional insight, creativity and perseverance in pursuing crucial questions in medical science," said Joseph L. Goldstein of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and chair of the Lasker Medical Research Awards Jury. Goldstein is a recipient of the 1985 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research and the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

For 71 years, the Lasker Awards, America's most prestigious biomedical research awards, have recognized the contributions of scientists, clinicians and public citizens who have made major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of human disease.

Eighty-seven Lasker laureates have received a Nobel Prize, including 41 over the past three decades. The Lasker Awards carry an honorarium of $250,000 for each category. This year’s awards will be presented on Friday, Sept. 23, in New York City.

More details on the Lasker Award recipients, the full citations for each award category, video interviews and photos of the awardees and additional information on the Foundation are available at www.laskerfoundation.org.