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HPV researchers, Planned Parenthood win prestigious Lasker medical awards

Douglas Lowy and John Schiller of the National Cancer Institute will receive the Lasker Award for work that paved the way for the development of the HPV vaccine. (National Cancer Institute)

This post has been updated.

The Lasker Awards, among the most prestigious in medicine, will go to two National Cancer Institute researchers whose work led to the development of vaccines that prevent cervical cancer, and to Planned Parenthood for providing “essential health services and reproductive care” to millions of women, the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation said Wednesday.

In announcing the awards, sometimes referred to as “America’s Nobels,” the foundation lauded the recipients’ efforts to protect and enhance women’s health. Its praise of Planned Parenthood seemed designed to counter attacks on the nonprofit by President Trump and top congressional Republicans, who want to end all federal funding to the organization. Planned Parenthood, the nation’s biggest abortion provider, already is barred from using federal dollars for abortions.

The foundation also honored Michael N. Hall, a molecular biologist at the Biozentrum University of Basel, for discoveries involving the role of proteins called TOR in controlling cell growth. It said his discoveries “have broadened our understanding of the fundamental mechanisms that underlie growth, development and aging.”

Michael Hall was honored with a Lasker Award for discoveries concerning the nutrient-activated TOR proteins and their central role in the metabolic control of cell growth. (Video: Flora Lichtman, Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation)

The prizes, which come with $250,000, are awarded to researchers, clinicians and others who have made major advances in the prevention and treatment of disease. They are sometimes seen as a harbinger of the Nobel Prize; 87 Lasker laureates have also won Nobels.

The target of the two NCI scientists honored — Douglas Lowy, the institute’s acting director, and John Schiller, a longtime researcher there — was the disease that kills 250,000 women around the world every year. “They devised a blueprint for several safe and effective vaccines that promise to slash the incidence of cervical cancer and mortality,” the foundation said.

Douglas Lowy and John Schiller were honored with Lasker Awards for technological advances in HPV vaccines for prevention of cervical cancer and other tumors caused by human papillomaviruses. (Video: Flora Lichtman, Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation)

That work by the longtime collaborators, who will share the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, enabled the development of vaccines for the human papillomavirus. HPV infection also causes cancers of the vulva, penis, anus and throat.

People have known since the 19th century that cervical cancer behaved like a sexually transmitted disease, Lowy said. But it wasn't until the early 1980s that German virologist Harald zur Hausen linked malignancies to particular HPV strains. “That made crystal clear that HPV was incredibly important,” he added.

In the early 1990s, he and Schiller set out to create a vaccine to block persistent infections from dangerous HPV strains. They couldn’t use the entire virus for the vaccine because of the risk it could trigger malignancies. Instead, they focused on utilizing parts that wouldn’t cause cancer.

Experimenting first with the bovine papillomavirus, which causes cow warts, they found proteins that could arrange themselves into virus-like particles and provoke a strong antibody response that prevented infection.

Translating those and other findings to humans brought new technical hurdles, which Lowy and Schiller eventually surmounted. They then approached pharmaceutical companies about manufacturing the vaccine, yet only Merck and a company that was later bought by GlaxoSmithKline were interested. After successful clinical trials in humans, the companies’ vaccines won approval by the Food and Drug Administration in 2006 and 2009, respectively.

Three doses of the vaccine for girls and boys were recommended initially, but last year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said two doses were adequate for 11- and 12-year-olds. If started later, three doses are still recommended for ages 15 through 26.

The uptake rate for the vaccination has been slower than that for many other vaccinations, but Lowy remains confident the pace will increase. In a conference call with reporters, he and Schiller emphasized that boys as well as girls need to be vaccinated — in part because throat cancer, which can be caused by HPV infection, occurs more in men than women.

In the meantime, the two researchers are overseeing a new clinical trial in Costa Rica to see if a single dose can provide sufficient protection — a finding that could have huge ramifications for women in poor countries.

“A single dose would be much less expensive and logistically far easier,” Lowy said.

The pair acknowledge they have had an unusually productive collaboration. “He’s understated and not self-aggrandizing,” Schiller says. Lowy responds, “I like the way he thinks.”

Planned Parenthood will receive the Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award, in recognition of its role as a critical provider of women’s medical services from breast-cancer screenings to tests for sexually transmitted diseases, the foundation explained. It noted that Planned Parenthood helped 2.4 million women in 2015, including many who had no other source of care.

The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation honored Planned Parenthood for providing essential health services and reproductive care to millions of women for more than a century. (Video: Flora Lichtman, Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation)

Those services, the president of Planned Parenthood warned Wednesday, could be at risk given the “major public efforts to roll back access to reproductive health care and reproductive rights,” including birth control. The Trump administration is considering overturning a requirement that many employer-based plans provide birth control at no cost.

Such a move would be counterproductive, President Cecile Richards suggested on the call with reporters. Because of sex education and family planning, unintended pregnancies and abortions in the United States have declined sharply, she noted.

The foundation’s creators — public relations pioneer Albert Lasker and his wife Mary, who became one of the nation’s leading cancer advocates — had a long relationship with Planned Parenthood. In 1937, Mary Lasker read about Margaret Sanger, who two decades before had opened the first birth control clinic in the United States and later founded the American Birth Control League. She made a donation and subsequently joined the group’s board. Her husband proposed a new name to better describe the group’s mission: Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Previous recipients of the public service prize included Doctors Without Borders for its work during the Ebola outbreak and to Bill and Melinda Gates for their global health efforts.

This year’s awards will be presented in New York City on Sept. 15.

Read more:

CDC now recommends just two HPV vaccine doses for preteens 

More than 1 in 5 U.S. adults are infected with cancer-causing HPV, CDC report says 

Cancer doctors leading campaign to boost use of HPV vaccine