Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, three developers of implants that help the deaf hear, and two brain scientists have won Lasker Awards for their advances in medical research and public service.
The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation announced the winners of the $250,000 awards today in a statement. The prizes will be presented in New York on Sept. 20.
The clinical research prize was given to Graeme M. Clark, Ingeborg Hochmair and Blake S. Wilson for development of the modern cochlear implant, a device that enabled hearing in the deaf and for the first time restored one of the five senses in a person through medicine. Richard H. Scheller and Thomas C. Sudhof won the basic science prize for research that discovered how brain cells communicate with each other using neurotransmitters.
“All five winners embarked on undertakings that required a remarkable degree of technical courage,” Alfred Sommer, the Lasker foundation’s chairman, said of the research winners. “Both lines of inquiry opened up entire new worlds. Scheller and Sudhof revealed unprecedented detail about how brain cells send messages to one another, and Clark, Hochmair, and Wilson cracked the sound barrier for people with severe hearing problems.”
The Gateses were given the foundation’s public service prize for leading philanthropy efforts totaling more than $26 billion. The Microsoft chairman and his wife founded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and have attacked some of the world’s biggest public health problems, including nutrition, infection and hunger. They also underwrote the GAVI Alliance, a vaccine development and administration coalition.
Scheller, who is head of research and early development at Roche Holding AG’s Genentech biotechnology unit, and Sudhof, a researcher at the Stanford University School of Medicine began their work on brain-cell signaling in the 1980s. They discovered how neurons use calcium to communicate between cells, a key to understanding memory and learning, said the foundation.
The clinical research prize given to Clark, Hochmair and Wilson for development of the modern cochlear implant, drew from the researchers work on understanding how tiny hairs in the ear canal transmit electrical signals that the brain understands as sound. Those hairs can be damaged or missing, though, causing deafness.
Clark and Hochmair’s device restored some hearing, and Wilson, co-director of the Duke University Hearing Center, created a method to improve the processing of sound and help deaf people understand speech again without having to read lips. Now, using a cochlear implant, previously deaf or hearing-damaged people can use a cell phone and follow conversations, said the foundation. Clark is an emeritus professor at the University of Melbourne, Hochmair is the founder of MED-EL GmbH, a closely held hearing implant manufacturer.
The Lasker prizes have been awarded since 1945 by the Lasker Foundation, which was founded in 1942. The New York-based foundation recognizes the contributions of scientists, physicians and others who have made major advances in the understanding, diagnosis or treatment of disease.