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Key Contributors to the Human Genome Project Awarded Albany Prize

Albany, N.Y., April 23, 2010—Three world-renowned American scientists today were awarded the 10th annual Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research—America’s top prize in medicine—for their profound insights which led to the mapping of the human genetic blueprint.

David Botstein, Ph.D., director and Anthony B. Evnin Professor of Genomics of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University, Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Institutes of Health, and Eric Steven Lander, Ph.D., president and director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, accepted the honor following a special Grand Rounds lecture where they discussed their landmark contributions to the Human Genome Project—a revolutionary development that dramatically expanded our knowledge of human disease.

“There are few individuals in the history of science and medicine whose contributions have so changed our understanding of diseases and provided insights into how we might develop better treatments,” said James J. Barba, chairman of the National Selection Committee and president and chief executive officer of Albany Medical Center. “Their discoveries at the most basic genetic level promise to lead to a wide range of advances including the development of person- and disease-specific medicines that should be much more effective at combating a variety of diseases.”

The Albany Medical Center Prize, often called “America’s Nobel,” was established in 2000 by the late Morris “Marty” Silverman through a $50 million gift commitment from the Marty and Dorothy Silverman Foundation to Albany Medical Center. Silverman’s vision was to honor scientists whose work has “demonstrated significant outcomes that offer medical value of national or international importance” and to draw positive attention to Albany Medical Center and the Capital Region of New York as a center for biomedical research and medical education.
The gift provides for the Prize to be awarded annually for 100 years.

Drs. Botstein and Lander were each presented with one third of the monetary award ($166,666). Since NIH restrictions preclude Dr. Collins from accepting any monetary awards personally, a decision was made by the Silverman Foundation—in consultation with Barba as head of the National Selection Committee—to donate the same amount of money to the NIH Foundation.

Collectively, the work of Drs. Lander, Collins and Botstein has unlocked the human genome, paving the way for easier identification and study of genes associated with common diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, and less common genetic conditions like progeria (premature aging) and Huntington’s disease. Knowledge gleaned from the remarkable Human Genome Project, in which all three played a key role, has led to an explosion of genetic research and will in the future undoubtedly be a key to diagnosing, treating and combating many human disease conditions.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1980s, Dr. Botstein, a geneticist, was among the first to propose the concept of building a complete genetic map of the human being. Before that time, scientists and physicians interested in finding genes responsible for certain conditions had to hunt for those genes over vast chromosomal territory—a time-consuming and very often fruitless task. Dr. Botstein’s idea was that if a map existed of human DNA (human genome), such efforts would be monumentally easier. In a paper published in 1980, he and three colleagues described in principle how one could make detailed maps of genetic diseases caused by just one gene. His idea and the mapping techniques he described laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the Human Genome Project.

Dr. Botstein soon enlisted the help of a colleague, mathematician Dr. Lander, then on sabbatical from MIT at the Harvard Business School, whose math skills and growing interest in genetics helped to make possible the development of even more advanced gene-mapping techniques. Together, they created the first practical plan to make and use a comprehensive genetic map of the human genome, and, in 1987, Dr. Lander elucidated how one could develop maps of complex multiple-gene diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Meanwhile, Dr. Collins, a noted physician and biologist at the University of Michigan, was applying new gene-seeking techniques—most notably developing a technique for identifying particular disease-related genes known as positional cloning. With collaborators in Toronto, he used the technique to make the landmark 1989 discovery of the long-sought-after gene that causes cystic fibrosis.

With growing gene-mapping knowledge in place, and the increasing understanding that science would be greatly served with a complete genetic map, in 1990 the government launched the ambitious Human Genome Project. Dr. Lander’s laboratories at MIT became leading contributors to the project, helping to construct maps and then the DNA sequence of the human and mouse genomes. Dr. Collins was named director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health in 1993 and oversaw the project through its monumental completion in 2003, providing an entire sequence of human DNA.

Today, scientists across the globe are using this database as the basis to learn more about what’s in our genes—not only learning more each day about who we are and our origins as humans, but greatly accelerating our understanding of the fundamentals of human disease including cancer and heart disease and how our genes interact with our environment.

“The Human Genome Project has made it possible for us to identify genetic causes of illness in a fraction of the time it used to take,” Dr. Collins said. “This was truly a collaborative, international effort involving more than 2,000 scientists in six countries, working together to make that first human sequence possible. It is important to note that the Human Genome Project gave away all the data immediately. That kind of free and rapid data release has now become the standard for many other large-scale collaborative projects, speeding up the application of these discoveries to clinical medicine.”
 
“What’s so powerful about genetics is that it is a spotlight that can illuminate the molecular mechanism of disease — genetic mapping is an incredibly powerful way to figure out what’s wrong under the hood and, from there, to begin to figure out how to fix it. This generation has made it possible to lay bare all the genetic information. I have no doubt that the next generation will be able to make much more progress with that information,” said Dr. Lander. In addition to  heading up the Broad Institute, Dr. Lander currently serves as co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Dr. Botstein predicted that during the next decade or so customized medications that promise to be markedly more effective than current therapies will be developed based upon the expanded body of scientific knowledge resulting from the genome project. “It is now becoming clear in the case of cancer, for example, that by sequencing individual people and their tumors that we’re learning what kinds of drugs to make to combat individual cancers, and basically the bottom line is that there will be a lot of different drugs developed in different combinations in different people. In the long run, I think it will happen.”

For more information on the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, go to: www.amc.edu/Academic/AlbanyPrize.

Albany Medical Center is one of only 125 academic health sciences centers in the nation and the only such health care institution in northeastern New York. With more than 7,000 staff members, this leading not-for-profit health care institution constitutes the largest private employer in Albany.  It includes one of New York’s largest teaching hospitals, Albany Medical Center Hospital (founded in 1849); one of the nation’s oldest medical schools, Albany Medical College (founded in 1839); and one of the Capital Region’s most active fundraising organizations, the Albany Medical Center Foundation, Inc.

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*Questions & Comments:

Greg McGarry
Extension: (518) 262 - 3421
  McGarrG@mail.amc.edu



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