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Sir David Weatherall wins top US medical prize
21 Sep 10
Sir David Weatherall of Oxford University has been awarded a Lasker Award, the most significant US prize for medical research with many past award winners subsequently going on to receive Nobel prizes. He is the only person outside America to win the award this year.
The $250,000 prize recognises his research on genetic diseases of the blood and his leadership in improving clinical care for thousands of children with thalassaemia throughout the developing world.
The 2010 Lasker~Koshland Special Achievement Award will be presented to Sir David for ‘50 years of international statesmanship in biomedical science’, the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation has announced.
Sir David’s research over the last 50 years has greatly advanced our understanding of thalassaemia, a set of inherited blood disorders that affect the body’s ability to create red blood cells and can lead to anaemia of different severities. As well as using a range of approaches to determine the molecular and genetic causes of thalassaemia, he has been able to improve clinical treatment of the disease and change its care for the better worldwide, particularly in the developing world.
‘It’s a tremendous honour to be given this award,’ said Sir David Weatherall, emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Oxford. ‘It’s both a surprise and a delight to have my work and my career recognised in this way. It’s also a tribute to all my colleagues – researchers, doctors and healthcare professionals – who have contributed so much to this work.’
Professor Weatherall has long been an important figure in Oxford medicine. With the vast majority of thalassaemia cases occurring in the developing world, as early as the 1970s Sir David focused on building research partnerships and capacity in these areas – long before global health issues became a priority more widely.
Oxford University now has a network of long-standing clinical research units in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Kenya funded by the Wellcome Trust, and a Medical Research Council unit in The Gambia. These units, and their partnerships with local doctors and researchers, are key to the University’s strengths in combating infectious disease. Oxford is just about the only academic institution in the world with this research reach and is recognised as a world leader in global health.
Professor Sir David Weatherall
It’s both a surprise and a delight to have my work and my career recognised in this way
Sir David established an Institute of Molecular Medicine at Oxford University in 1989, which was renamed the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine when he retired in 2000. The Institute’s 400 scientists work on areas of molecular and cell biology that can improve our understanding and treatment of diseases ranging from cancer to HIV/AIDS.
Professor Alastair Buchan, head of the medical sciences division at Oxford University, said: ‘The Lasker Award is of the very highest order and there could not be a more deserving recipient than Professor Sir David Weatherall. His outstanding research achievements have greatly improved the treatment of thalassaemia. He has relentlessly championed the need to tackle the most pressing global health issues which affect many of the poorest people in the world, and he has worked indefatigably to provide the infrastructure necessary to carry out the best research to understand disease and improve human health.
‘Another enduring contribution is the legacy of his inspiring mentorship. In the same month in which David receives the Lasker Award, three of those he has mentored will be honoured: Professors Peter Ratcliffe and Nick White will receive Gairdner Awards in Toronto and his successor as Regius Professor, Sir John Bell, will give the Harveian Oration at the Royal College of Physicians. The Medical Sciences Division at Oxford will be proud to celebrate all these achievements.’
It might all have been quite different, as Professor Weatherall received a certain lack of support at the beginning of his career. ‘I was almost court-martialled for my first paper on a Nepalese patient that I studied during a stint in the British Army in the late-1950s,’ he recounts. ‘This was because military commanders had not given me permission to publish. A senior officer also disapproved of me broadcasting the fact that one of its regiments had “bad genes” within it.’
The Lasker Awards, established in 1945, have recognized the contributions of scientists, physicians, and public servants across the world that have made major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure, and prevention of human disease. 76 winners of Lasker awards have received the Nobel Prize, including 28 in the last two decades. Sir David is one of four Lasker award winners for 2010. The Lasker Foundation is also presenting prizes to Douglas Coleman and Jeffrey Friedman for discovering leptin, a hormone that regulates appetite and body weight, a finding that firmly established the tie between obesity and genetics, and to Napoleone Ferrara for the discovery of Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor (VEGF), a key to blood-vessel formation, which led to his creation of a treatment that restores sight to people blinded by the effects of wet age-related macular degeneration.
Sir David will receive his award at a ceremony on Friday 1 October at the Pierre Hotel in New York City.