Lasker Foundation President: When America opens its door, science benefits

Like many Americans, watching the unfolding drama resulting from the shifts in U.S. immigration policy – families torn apart at our borders, parents deported back to dangerous areas without their children, toddlers crying for their mothers from detention facilities – was a profound experience, whatever your policy perspective, of witnessing lives disrupted, dreams abandoned and families divided.

As president of the Lasker Foundation, an organization devoted to advancing medical research excellence since 1945, I was curious as to what impact immigrants have had on biomedical science. How has medicine been impacted by the historic waves of migration to America’s shores?

I discovered that more than 60 winners of the Lasker Award for basic science or clinical research were immigrants, including the co-recipient of the 2018 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, Michael Grunstein, a Romanian-born child of Holocaust survivors. These scientists – leaving their homelands to search for a better life – made profound contributions to research, enriched our understanding of medicine and brought the promise of a healthier world.

Many of these Lasker Laureates came to the U.S. as children:

  • Philip Levine was 8 years old when his family escaped Tsarist Russia to come to America. Levine was the first to posit that Rh antibodies made by a pregnant mother were the cause of a fatal anemia of the newborn, an advance recognized with a Lasker in 1946.
  • Mario Capecchi was a 4-year-old living in Italy when his U.S.-born mother was arrested by the Nazis. After years of surviving alone on the streets, Capecchi was found again by his mother, who brought him to America. He won the Lasker in 2001 and the Nobel in 2007 for his breakthrough creation of genetically-modified “knock-out mice,” which today serve as models for many human diseases.
  • Eric Kandel was 9 when he and his brother traveled alone from Austria to New York to escape the Nazis. Today in his office hangs a copy of the ship’s manifest documenting his journey to America, alongside photos of him receiving the 1983 Lasker and the 2000 Nobel for his studies of memory.

We can only imagine the loss to the world had these immigrant scientists been returned to their countries of origin instead of finding hope, purpose and opportunity in America.

As President Lyndon Johnson pointed out, “America was built by a nation of strangers. From a hundred different places or more they have poured forth into an empty land, joining and blending in one mighty and irresistible tide. The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources – because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples.”

With its culture of entrepreneurism, innovation and creativity, America has long been a beacon of opportunity for science. In fact, some of our Lasker Laureates came to the US because the best scientific training could be obtained in our universities.

  • Choh Hao Li emigrated from China for postgraduate studies at Berkeley.  He went on to receive the 1962 Lasker for isolating several pituitary hormones, including those that control the adrenal gland.
  • Günter Blobel journeyed to America for research training after receiving his medical degree in Germany.  Blobel won the 1993 Lasker and the 1999 Nobel, for elucidating how proteins in each cell have a “virtual ZIP code” that guides them to exactly where they need to be.
  • Emil Unanue came to America to do post-doctoral research after receiving his PhD at the University of Havana.  He won the 1995 Lasker for his explorations of how T cells work, providing insights critical to vaccine development and our understanding of autoimmune diseases.

Others came because of job opportunities that allowed them to make the best use of their passion and expertise:

  • Miguel Ondetti was educated in Argentina and started his chemistry career at a branch of the Squibb laboratories in Buenos Aires. Company leaders were so impressed with his work that they recruited him to the Squibb Research Institute in New Jersey. There, he developed Captopril, which has helped cardiac patients around the globe and was honored with the Lasker in 1999.
  • Rachel Schneerson, born in Poland and educated in Israel before being recruited to a position in the US, won a Lasker in 1996 for developing the H. flu vaccine that has prevented disabilities and deaths among children around the world from this devastating bacterial disease.

The list goes on. Their paths to our country were diverse, but all made deep and lasting contributions.

Because America’s doors were open these many decades – and with that, because there was opportunity for scientific excellence and innovation to thrive – we have a better understanding of the human brain, a deeper grasp of the workings of the immune system, and treatment advances ranging from vaccines to antibiotics to cardiac drugs that have saved millions of lives.

Open doors create the opportunity for sometimes unforeseen medical-science brilliance to flourish, and when that happens, we all benefit.