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Lasker Awards go to rapid neurotransmitter release and modern cochlear implant

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A very brainy area of research has scooped up one of this year’s $250,000 Lasker prizes, announced today: The Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award has gone to two researchers who shed light on the molecular mechanisms behind the rapid release of neurotransmitters—findings that have implications for understanding the biology of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, as well the cellular functions underlying learning and memory formation.

By systematically analyzing proteins capable of quickly releasing chemicals in the brain, Genentech’s Richard Scheller and Stanford University’s Thomas Südhof advanced our understanding of how calcium ions regulate the fusion of vesicles with cell membranes during neurotransmission. Among Scheller’s achievements is the identification of three proteins—SNAP-25, syntaxin and VAMP/synaptobrevin—that have a vital role in neurotransmission and molecular machinery recycling. Moreover, Südhof’s observations elucidated how a protein called synaptotagmin functions as a calcium sensor, allowing these ions to enter the cell. Thanks to these discoveries, scientists were later able to understand how abnormalities in the function of these proteins contribute to some of the world’s most destructive neurological illnesses. (For an essay by Südhof on synaptotagmin, click here.)

The Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award went to three researchers whose work led to the development of the modern cochlear implant, which allows the profoundly deaf to perceive sound. During the 1960s and 1970s Greame Clark of the University of Melbourne and Ingeborg Hochmair, CEO of cochlear implant manufacturer MED-EL, independently designed implant components that, when combined, transformed acoustical information into electrical signals capable of exciting the auditory nerve. Duke University’s Blake Wilson later contributed his “continuous interleaved sampling” system, which gave the majority of cochlear implant wearers the ability to understand speech clearly without visual cues. (For a viewpoint by Graeme addressing the evolving science of cochlear implants, click here.)

Bill and Melinda Gates were also honored this year with the Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award. Through their foundation, the couple has made large investments in helping people living in developing countries gain access to vaccines and drugs. The Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also runs programs to educate women about proper nutrition for their families and themselves. The organization has a broad mandate in public health; one of its most well known projects is the development of a low-cost toilet that will have the ability to operate without water.

The full collection of Lasker essays, as well as a Q&A between Lasker president Claire Pomeroy and the Gateses, can be found here.

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