Genetic Researchers Win $500,000 Prize

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Three American scientists who contributed to the mapping of the human genetic blueprint — an advance that continues to give the medical world a better understanding of human disease — were awarded the nation's richest prize in medicine and biomedical research Wednesday.

The $500,000 Albany Medical Center prize is being shared by Dr. David Botstein, director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University; Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health; and Dr. Eric Steven Lander, president and director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

All three participated in the Human Genome Project, which led to new research into how to better diagnose, treat and combat a number of human diseases.

Collectively, their work has helped lead to the study of genes associated with common diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, as well as less common genetic conditions.

Botstein, a geneticist, was among the first to propose the concept of building a complete genetic map of human DNA while working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1980s.

Lander, a mathematician, worked with Botstein and helped create a more advanced gene mapping technique. In 1987, Lander explained how to develop maps of complex diseases that are related to more than one gene — for example diabetes and heart disease.

Collins, a physician and biologist, was one of the early researchers developing a technique for identifying particular disease-related genes. Using that technique, called positional cloning, he was one of the researchers who discovered the gene that causes cystic fibrosis in 1989.

"They all dovetail," said Dr. Stephen Warren, an Emory University geneticist. "Botstein saw the need to follow discrete pieces of DNA as it travels through a family. Eric Lander helped with quantifying that and expanding it from simple genetic diseases to more complex genetic diseases, and Francis really brought the big science part of the package.

"Up until then (genetic scientists) were working in individual laboratories. Francis was the one who came up with the vision for a long endeavor, what was equivalent to the moon shot," Warren said.

The government launched the Human Genome Project in 1998. Since then it has become a database that scientists around the globe use to learn more about genes and disease.

The Albany Medical Center prize is the largest medicine or science award in the United States, and ranks second worldwide only to the $1.4 million Nobel Prize among medical prizes. It was established in 2000 with a $50 million gift from the late Morris "Marty" Silverman, a New York City businessman who wanted to encourage health and biomedical research.