Breakthrough Prize Awards Research To Cure Disease

Feb 20, 2013
Originally published on February 20, 2013 5:11 pm
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If you win a Nobel Prize, you take home just over a million dollars. Well, today it was announced that 11 scientists have each won nearly triple that, $3 million. They're the first winners of a new prize created by a who's who of Silicon Valley billionaires. The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences was created to reward excellence in research to cure diseases and extend life.

The founding sponsors include Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and venture capitalist Yuri Milner. Milner has said he was motivated by illness within his own family, and encouraged the others to contribute. The scientists who won say it came as a real surprise.

NAPOLEONE FERRARA: I was stunned. It was almost disbelief. First of all, I think I didn't know that this prize existed.

BLOCK: That's U.C.-San Diego cancer researcher Napoleone Ferrara. Cori Bargmann of Rockefeller University, who studies the genetics of neural circuits, thought at first it was a practical joke or a version of the Nigerian scam. When she realized the $3 million in prize money was real, she was elated.

CORI BARGMANN: As a scientist, the work itself is so inspiring. But it's hard, at times, and sometimes you feel like people don't understand what you're doing; or is it really worthwhile? And to have people like this get involved, is a real vote of confidence. It's very encouraging to a scientist, to feel that these people would take a step out from their very successful lives and appreciate what's going on in biology.

BLOCK: We're joined now by two of the Breakthrough Prize's founding sponsors: Art Levinson, who's chairman of Genentech and Apple; and Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. Welcome to both of you.

ART LEVINSON: Thanks for having us.

MARK ZUCKERBERG: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: And Mark, what would you say is the guiding principle behind these awards? What are you rewarding?

ZUCKERBERG: The main thing that I'm really excited about here, is that I think that our society needs more heroes who are scientists and researchers and engineers. And, you know, the people who are getting this award are doing the real work. But the thing that we can do from the sidelines is set up these institutions that can celebrate their work and reward them. And I'm really honored to be a part of this institution that is set up to reward these folks for the great work that they're doing.

BLOCK: It seems that personal experience among the founding sponsors - specifically, family members who had disease, who have suffered from disease - was motivating some of the prize money here.

ZUCKERBERG: I think so. But for me, this prize is really about the next generation, right? It's about the students who are in college and grad school; who are in the labs and are trying to figure out what they want to research and work on next. It's about kids who are growing up and want to figure out what they want to be when they grow up, and look to signals like this for inspiration. And if we can play a role in helping more people do really important work that - improve a lot of people's lives, then I think that that's an awesome thing for us to spend our time doing.

BLOCK: And Art, let's talk about the winners here; that it's heavy on your list - the winners are heavy in the human genome project and cancer research. And these are big, prominent names, many of them connected with very well-funded institutions - Johns Hopkins and MIT. We're not talking about underdogs here who are scrapping and really needing funding, right?

LEVINSON: They're not, certainly, underdogs. And as a result of their really fantastic efforts, for the most part, everybody is really quite well-funded; although as we face the prospect of sequester and, you know, potential reductions to the NIH budget - which after all, funds so much of the basic research, at least in this country - we're looking at potentially pretty tight times ahead.

BLOCK: Why do you think that this field - and specifically, cancer research and gene research - why is this where the money can do the most good, and with these winners?

LEVINSON: Well, the way we approach the selection of winners was to take a look at those scientists who have made the fundamental discoveries really independent of any particular therapeutic discipline. But then layered on top of that, we wanted to also address people who were tackling some of the most intractable diseases - like cancer, like immunological disorders, neurological disorders. So we put a certain emphasis on those individuals who had a translational component to their work, affecting people who had - have some of the most serious diseases known.

BLOCK: I wonder if there would be scientists listening to this who are working really hard at unheralded, not very well-funded institutions; who would look at this list of names and say, these guys don't need $3 million. They're doing fine. I need $3 million.

LEVINSON: Well, they might be wondering that. But at the same time, one has to, you know, apportion any kind of prizes among those who have really made the most important achievements. So I don't really know any other way to do it than to really shine the spotlight on the people who have made the kind of contributions. And hopefully, they'll serve as wonderful role models to the younger generation.

BLOCK: Does the Breakthrough Prize set out any priorities for how the money should be spent?

LEVINSON: Oh no, it's a personal contribution to the person - to the individual who has received the award.

BLOCK: Which means they could do with it what they want.

LEVINSON: They can do - they can go on a cruise, or they can continue and expand their own research efforts, if they so choose. It's completely flexible.

BLOCK: What's your hope, Mr. Levinson, for what comes from this prize money?

LEVINSON: My fondest hope is that it would be widespread recognition of the winners, who have worked so hard over the course of so many years to make these fundamental discoveries; and beyond that, to make sure - to some extent - that this process is revealed to some of the young people making career choices. Science is a fantastic field. Few of us went into the field, initially, with the idea that we were going to go into this field to make a lot of money. It was driven by a fundamental interest in basic discovery; that's certainly my own background here. And this just maybe provides an opportunity to show that if one is successful, you know, in addition to all the joys associated with basic discovery, that there's a possibility for additional forms of recognition.

BLOCK: Art Levinson and Mark Zuckerberg, thanks so much for talking with us.

LEVINSON: Pleasure being here, thank you.

ZUCKERBERG: Thanks for having us. We're really excited about this.

BLOCK: That's Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and chairman of Apple and Genentech Art Levinson. They're founding sponsors of the Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences, which were awarded to 11 researchers today.


BLOCK: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.