Akira Endo, 74, of Biopharm Research Laboratories Inc. of Tokyo won the clinical research award for discovering the first of the statins, the cholesterol-controlling drugs that are now among the most widely used medications in the world.
Endo began his work in 1971 with a novel idea. Scientists knew that the body makes cholesterol with the help of a particular enzyme, and reasoned that interfering with this enzyme might lower cholesterol. Endo thought some organisms might use such an interfering substance as a means of defense. He and his colleagues examined more than 6,000 fungi and eventually he purified an enzyme-blocker called mevastatin or compactin. He showed in 1979 that it could sharply lower cholesterol in dogs and monkeys.
Endo's work inspired others, and in 1987 a similar drug (called lovastatin or Mevacor) was the first statin to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"Endo ushered in a new era in preventing and treating (coronary heart disease)," the Lasker Foundation said. "His work has touched millions of people."
The Lasker prize for basic medical research is shared by three scientists: Victor Ambros, 54, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester; David Baulcombe, 56, of the University of Cambridge in England, and Gary Ruvkun, 56, of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and Harvard Medical School.
They discovered that molecules called microRNAs can control the activity of genes in plants and animals. People appear to have between 500 and 1,000 kinds of microRNAs that altogether might control one-third of the human genes, the foundation said. They play roles in embryonic development and muscle function as well as cancer, heart disease and viral infections, the foundation said.
The prize for special achievement in medical science was given to Stanley Falkow, 74, of the Stanford University School of Medicine. He was cited for "a 51-year career as one of the great microbe hunters of all time."
Falkow showed how germs can pick up resistance to antibiotics, revolutionized scientific thinking about how germs cause disease, and mentored many students who have become distinguished scientists, the foundation said.
This year, the clinical prize was renamed the Lasker-Debakey Award and the special achievement prize was renamed the Lasker-Koshland award. The new names honor pioneering heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey, who died in July, and noted biochemist and journal editor Daniel Koshland Jr., who died last year.
Albert Lasker was an advertising executive who died in 1952. His wife Mary was a longtime champion of medical research before her death in 1994.
On the Net:
Lasker Foundation: www.laskerfoundation.org/