A founding father of the genetic code and of antisense technology,molecular biologist Paul Zamecnik, will this week receive the firstLasker award for special achievement in medical science.

In the past half century, the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation hasrewarded the achievements of some 300 basic and clinical scienceresearchers. Of these, 54 went on to receive Nobel Prizes, giving theLasker awards the reputation of being Nobel precursors.

This year's winners will receive their honors at a luncheon in NewYork on Friday. Molecular geneticist Joseph Goldstein (Laskerwinner in 1985; Nobel winner in 1985) will preside over the event aschairman of the Lasker Jury. He won his research laurels, jointly withmolecular biologist Michael Brown, for discovering the basicmechanisms controlling cholesterol metabolism.

Brown was one of the international panel of 25 medical andbiomedical scientists which chose Zamecnik to receive this firstLasker award honoring a lifetime of scientific achievement ratherthan specific successes. In 1956 at Massachusetts General Hospital,he discovered transfer RNA, and in 1978 first described the theory ofantisense. To commercialize this concept, he founded Hybridon Inc.,in Worcester, Mass., in 1980.

"Development of antisense therapeutics," the company's chairman,president and CEO, E. Andrews Grimstead III, told BioWorld Today,"is now a billion-dollar industry." Currently, 13 clinical trials areunder way at Hybridon and other companies for antisense drugs totreat AIDS, cytomegalovirus, cancer and other infectious diseases.

Zamecnik is Principal Scientist at the Worcester Foundation forBiomedical Research in nearby Shrewsbury, Mass.

At the luncheon Friday, Goldstein will present him with an AwardCitation, and a check for $25,000. The citation begins: "Fewscientists make a contribution of the monumental importance of PaulZamecnik. Fewer still make two." And it ends, "To Paul C.Zamecnik, for brilliant and original science that revolutionizedbiochemistry and created an entirely new field of scientific inquiry,this 1996 Albert Lasker Award for Special Achievement in MedicalSciences is given."

In the 19 years since genetic engineers at newly founded GenentechInc. cloned and expressed the very first recombinant protein,somatomedin, (see Science, Dec., 9, 1977), 17 of the 18 scientistwhose Nobel prizes followed Lasker awards in basic research werebiotechnologists _ namely:

Paul Berg, J. Michael Bishop, Michael Brown, Thomas Cech,Stanley Cohen, Walter Gilbert, Alfred Gilman, Joseph Goldstein,Georges Kshler, Edwin Krebs, Rita Levi-Montalcini, BarbaraMcClintock, CAEsar Milstein, Frederick Sangar, Phillip Sharpe,Susumu Tonegawa and Harold Varmus.

Prizes For Vaccine Development, Nitric Oxide Activity

For developing, testing, licensing and commercializing the firstvaccine against Hemophilus influenzae type b., four Americanvaccinologists will share two Clinical Medical Research prizes, Theyare:

* John Robbins and Rachel Schneerson, of the National Institute ofChild Health and Human Development, in Bethesda, Md.,

* Porter Warren Anderson, Jr., of University of Rochester, N.Y.,

* David Hamilton Smith, of D. H. Smith Foundation, N.Y.

Two other winners will receive Basic Medical Research prizes forelucidating the role of nitric oxide in disease:

* Robert Furchgott, of State University of New York, in Brooklyn,

* Ferid Murad, of Molecular Geriatrics Corp., in Lake Bluff, Illinois.

Zamecnik, who chairs Hybridon's scientific advisory board, toldBioWorld Today that he now is working with the company on twoantisense applications: Blocking drug-resistant malarial parasitesfrom replicating (see BioWorld Today, Jan. 12, 1996, p. 1) andsmuggling antibiotics into Mycobacteria (TB pathogens) tethered toantisense oligonucleotides.

"Drug-resistant bacteria," he said, provide a special challenge,because the oligos are blocked from getting into a bacterium by theseveral walls around it. But they also have special pores wherebymetabolites they need, such as biotin and alanine, are allowed tocome in readily. Antibiotics can only come in like Trojan horses."

To make this happen, Zamecnik continued, "we have tethered biotinand an analogue of alanine, and attached antibiotics by means ofabout half a dozen hydrogen bonds, with groups at both ends thatattach to the antibiotic at one end and the oligo on the other.Surprisingly for us, these small molecules will pull the oligo into thecell after them. So in the test tube we're getting inhibition of theseMycobacteria."

Hybridon malariologist Robert Barker, Zamecnik added, has movedfrom in vitro experiments to in vivo. "He's using chick malaria, inwhich he gets statistically significant inhibition of infection, usingantisense oligos. They are targeted to block the parasite's synthesis ofthymidine."

Some 240 invited guests are expected at the awards luncheon.Winners have been advised that they may make five-minuteresponses upon receiving their prizes. Asked what he plans to tell theassemblage, Zamecnik said: "Oh, I'll think of some amusingremarks." n

-- David N. Leff Science Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.