Internet titans throw millions into life sciences

A who's who of tech and innovation have launched the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences--with a purse more than double that of the Nobels--with two aims in mind: cure disease and extend life.

A who's who of tech and innovation have launched the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences--with a purse more than double that of the Nobels--with two aims in mind: recognize standout research focused on curing intractable diseases and extending human life.

As one of the prize founders Google's Sergey Brin put it in a statement announcing the prize, "curing a disease should be worth more than a touchdown."

The founders, Brin and his wife, Anne Wojcicki, CEO and co-founder of personal genetics company 23andMe; Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan; and Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner, collectively agreed to establish five annual prizes, at $3 million each. Eleven scientists received prizes in this initial round.

Art Levinson, Apple's chairman of the board and former CEO of Genentech, will serve as chairman of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation.

The prizes will be awarded for past achievements and aim to give the recipients more freedom and opportunity to purse future accomplishments, the founders said. In other words, these are recognition prizes, not inducement prizes that roundup scientists for a particular challenge.

The premise of the prize has received some criticism since it was announced this week. Over at the Guardian, the blog GrrlsScientist notes nearly all "breakthroughs" are the result of scientific collaborations and research teams, not one person. And the post further complains that the vast majority of the life sciences, such as biology, climate science, ecology, microbiology etc., have been overlooked.

A singular theme appears to connect most of the prize winners, at least this time around. Take a look at the list and you'll see a lot of cancer and genetics research.

Here are first 11 recipients, and a peek at why they were chosen:

  • Cornelia I. Bargmann: for the genetics of neural circuits and behavior, and synaptic guidepost molecules;
  • David Botstein: for linkage mapping of Mendelian disease in humans using DNA polymorphisms;
  • Lewis C. Cantley: for the discovery of PI 3 Kinase and its role in cancer metabolism;
  • Hans Clevers: for describing the role of Wnt signaling in tissue stem cells and cancer;
  • Napolene Ferrara: for discoveries in the mechanisms of angiogenesis that led to therapies for cancer and eye diseases.
  • Titia de Lange: for research on telomeres, illuminating how they protect chromosome ends and their role in genome instability in cancer.
  • Eric S. Lander: for the discovery of general principles for identifying human disease genes and enabling their application to medicine through the creation and analysis of genetic, physical and sequence maps of the human genome.
  • Charles L. Sawyers: for cancer genes and targeted therapy.
  • Bert Vogelstein: for cancer genomics and tumor suppressor genes.
  • Robert A. Weinberg: for characterization of human cancer genes.
  • Shinya Yamanaka: for induced pluripotent stem cells.

Photo: Breakthrough Prize Foundation

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