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Award mints millionaire biologists

A team of entrepreneurs has awarded its first round of US$3-million ‘Breakthrough’ prizes in biology and medicine. The winners were already celebrities in scientific circles, but one goal of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences is to make them household names.

Last summer, Russian social media magnate Yuri Milner awarded the first Fundamental Physics Prizes, a series of $3-million awards to theoretical physicists. Now he has decided to invite biologists to the party, uniting with former Genentech chief executive Art Levinson, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, 23andMe founder Anne Wojcicki and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, to sponsor five annual $3-million prizes.

The inaugural awards, however, went to a bumper crop: 11 pioneers who will help to select winners in subsequent years.  This year’s winners include those working in genomics (David Botstein and Eric Lander), cancer (Lew Cantley, Hans Clevers, Napoleone Ferrara, Charles Sawyers, Bert Vogelstein and Robert Weinberg), telomeres (Titia de Lange), stem cells (Shinya Yamanaka) and neurobiology (Cori Bargmann). Only one, to my knowledge, also has Gangnam Style. (Full MIT video here.)

The prize is worth more than two Nobels in cash, but will it be enough to raise the profile of biomedical researchers? The effort brings to mind the 2009 Rock Stars of Science ad campaign, which, it seems, is still going strong. Winners will give talks targeted to general audiences, and anyone can nominate scientists for the next round of five awards online.


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