Complex Regional Pain Syndrome Medicine

AlphaFold developers and eye scan inventors among Lasker Award winners for 2023

This post originally appeared on StatNews.

The prestigious Lasker Awards for biomedical research are sometimes referred to as “America’s Nobel,” and with good reason — about a fourth of Lasker laureates have gone on to receive the Swedish award, too.

The winners of the 2023 awards, announced on Thursday in New York, distinguished themselves in AI-enabled protein modeling, groundbreaking eye test technology, and in a wide-ranging career in medical science that combined innovative discoveries with attention to mentorship and leadership.


The recognition, which since 1945 has been given to outstanding contributions to medicine by the Mary and Albert Lasker Foundation, is awarded in three categories, each carrying a $250,000 prize.

AI for protein modeling

Demis Hassabis and John Jumper received the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for their work on AlphaFold, the deep learning AI system developed by DeepMind, Google’s AI sister company. Hassabis is DeepMind’s chief executive, and Jumper is a senior research scientist.

The program, introduced in 2018 and updated in 2020, brought to an end decades of painstaking research efforts to map proteins. It is able to provide accurate 3D mapping of protein structure, making predictions based on the amino acids that compose the protein. AlphaFold has been able to accurately model the structure of 200 million proteins, or practically all the ones known to exist, and can predict possible mutations, providing essential information for drug development.


Eyes on the prize

MIT’s James G. Fujimoto and David Huang, as well as Eric Swanson, who worked with the pair at MIT and Harvard and is now with the Oregon Health and Science University, were awarded the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for the invention of optical coherence tomography (OCT) — the first noninvasive technology allowing doctors to see high-resolution images of the retina. OCT, invented in 1991, works in a similar way to an ultrasound, but it doesn’t use waves. Instead, it scans the eye with a beam of light, recreating the retina’s image without touching the patient.

Before this invention, techniques such as dye injection or eye pressure measurements were used to detect disorders, with limited success — which meant that diagnoses were often missed. For more than 30 years, OCT has been used for rapid diagnostics of eye disorders, including glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration, and is now being expanded to use beyond the eye, such as to investigate arteries.

The chocolate bar reward

In recognition of his 50-year career, Dutch physician-scientist Piet Borst of the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam was awarded the Lasker~Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science.

Throughout his decades in the field, Borst’s research has been consequential in a number of areas. He identified how parasites, such as the one responsible for the sleeping sickness, are able to evade the immune system; studied the mechanisms that make cancer cells resistant to treatment; and identified a new and unusual DNA building block, called base J.

Borst was also a distinguished leader and mentor, according to the award citation, who fostered a climate of skepticism of authority among his colleagues — including by awarding a Dutch chocolate bar to any lab member able to disprove one of his theories.

This post originally appeared on StatNews.