New York Two scientists who first identified stem cells and two others who did pioneering work in DNA research have won prestigious medical awards.
The $50,000 prizes from the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation will be presented Friday in New York.
The prize for basic medical research will be shared by Ernest McCulloch and James Till of the Ontario Cancer Institute and the University of Toronto for their pioneering identification of a stem cell. Stem cells can give rise to specialized cell types, and scientists are studying them in hopes of creating tissue to treat diseases like diabetes and Parkinson's.
The work of McCulloch and Till set the stage for today's stem cell research, the Lasker foundation said. By the early 1970s, they showed clearly that a single type of bone marrow stem cell could create red cells, white cells and platelets. Their work explained the effect of bone marrow transplantation, used to treat people with leukemia or other blood cancers.
The Lasker prize for clinical medical research will be shared by two scientists from the United Kingdom, Sir Alec Jeffreys of the University of Leicester and Sir Edwin Southern of Oxford University.
Jeffreys discovered in 1984 that individuals' DNA differed in particular sites, where the chemical sequence that makes up the genetic code exhibited variable numbers of repeats. That meant a DNA sample could be linked to the person it came from, as is now well known from court cases and identification of victims of mass disasters. He also showed that people inherit the identifying signals from their parents.
Such "genetic fingerprinting ... has helped solve crimes, settle paternity and immigration disputes, establish the bases of inherited diseases, enhance transplantation biology, save endangered species, establish human origins and migrations and advance countless other beneficial endeavors," the Lasker foundation said.
Southern, in the mid 1970s, devised a now-standard lab technique that allows scientists to detect specific bits of genetic code within an organism's overall DNA. Jeffreys used it in his work, and it played a crucial role in mapping the human genome, the foundation said.
The Lasker public service award, which carries no honorarium, will be presented to Nancy Brinker, founder and president of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
She has "created one of the world's great foundations devoted to fighting breast cancer and dramatically increased public awareness about this devastating disease," the Lasker foundation said.