Scientist Wins Prize for Statin Breakthrough

By Malcolm Ritter
Associated Press
Sunday, September 14, 2008

NEW YORK -- A Japanese scientist whose breakthrough research led to the most popular cholesterol drugs is one of five scientists who have won prestigious medical prizes for their pioneering discoveries.

The $300,000 Albert Lasker medical research awards will be presented Sept. 26 in New York by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation.

Akira Endo, 74, of Biopharm Research Laboratories in Tokyo, won the clinical research award for discovering the first of the statins, the cholesterol-controlling drugs that are now among the most widely used medications in the world.

Endo began his work in 1971 with a novel idea. Scientists knew that the body makes cholesterol with the help of a particular enzyme, and he reasoned that interfering with this enzyme might lower cholesterol. Endo thought some organisms might use such an interfering substance as a means of defense.

He and his colleagues examined more than 6,000 fungi, and eventually Endo purified an enzyme-blocker called mevastatin or compactin. He showed in 1979 that it could sharply lower cholesterol in dogs and monkeys.

Endo's work inspired others, and in 1987 a similar drug (called lovastatin or Mevacor) was the first statin to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"Endo ushered in a new era in preventing and treating" coronary heart disease, the Lasker Foundation said. "His work has touched millions of people."

The Lasker prize for basic medical research is shared by three scientists: Victor Ambros, 54, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester; David Baulcombe, 56, of the University of Cambridge in England; and Gary Ruvkun, 56, of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and Harvard Medical School.

The scientists discovered that molecules called microRNAs can control the activity of genes in plants and animals. People appear to have 500 to 1,000 kinds of microRNAs that together might control a third of the human genes, the foundation said. They play roles in embryonic development and muscle function as well as in cancer, heart disease and viral infections, the foundation said.

The prize for special achievement in medical science was given to Stanley Falkow, 74, of the Stanford University School of Medicine. He was cited for "a 51-year career as one of the great microbe hunters of all time."

Falkow showed how germs can pick up resistance to antibiotics and revolutionized scientific thinking about how germs cause disease. He also mentored many students who have become distinguished scientists, the foundation said.

Albert Lasker was an advertising executive who died in 1952. His wife, Mary, was a longtime champion of medical research. She died in 1994.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company