The 2021 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Award was awarded to Katalin Karikó, PhD, senior vice president at BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals, and Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, professor in vaccine research at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. The pair’s decades of research, and teamwork, pioneered the mRNA technology that led to the COVID-19 vaccines developed by Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer.
The Lasker Awards have been awarded annually since 1945 to living persons who have made major contributions to medical science or who have performed public service on behalf of medicine. They are administered by the Lasker Foundation, founded by Albert Lasker and his wife Mary Woodard Lasker (later a medical research activist). The awards are sometimes referred to as “America’s Nobels”.
The Lasker Awards are given in three categories: basic research, clinical research, and special achievement.
The Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award honors research accomplishments and scientific statesmanship that engender the deepest feelings of awe and respect. This year, that honor was given to David Baltimore, PhD, professor emeritus at the California Institute of Technology. Baltimore won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1975 for the discovery of reverse transcriptase—the enzyme found in retroviruses that converts RNA to DNA.
The Albert Lasker Basic Award, given for a fundamental discovery that opens up a new area of biomedical science, was awarded this year to a team of three researchers for their work in developing the field of optogenetics, including the early discovery that launched the field—that of light-sensitive microbial proteins that can activate or silence individual brain cells.
The 2021 winners are Peter Hegemann, PhD, professor of biophysics at Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany; Dieter Oesterhelt, PhD, emeritus director at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry; and Karl Deisseroth, PhD, professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.