Medical researchers win honors

Akira Endo, a Japanese scientist whose discovery of the first cholesterol-lowering statin drug helped extend the lives of millions of people, is one of five winners of this year's Lasker Awards for medical research, it was announced Saturday.

An American microbiologist, Stanley Falkow of Stanford University, was honored for greatly expanding knowledge of disease-causing microbes, ranking him as “one of the greatest microbiologists of all time,” the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation said in making the awards.

A third award went to two Americans and a Briton for their pioneering look into a previously unknown universe of potent molecules known as tiny ribonucleic acids, or micro-RNAs. The Americans are Victor Ambros, 54, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester and Gary Ruvkun, 56, of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The Briton is David Baulcombe, 56, of the University of Cambridge.

These scientists found that snippets of RNA act as genetic regulators governing many activities in animals and plants. Scientists now have implicated micro-RNAs in viral infections, heart failure, cancer, other diseases, and normal functions like muscle action and blood cell specialization.

Endo, 74, was chosen for ushering in a new era in preventing and treating coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States and other countries, said Joseph Goldstein, chairman of the 24-member scientific jury that selects the Lasker recipients.

Falkow, 74, was honored for his discoveries that grew out of an extraordinary ability to imagine himself as a bacterium so he could view the world from the microbial perspective.

That talent helped him discover the molecular nature of antibiotic resistance and forge new laboratory tools that revolutionized the way scientists think about how microbes cause disease.

The three winners in the basic research category were honored for expanding the versatility of RNA, long regarded as DNA's poor cousin. Previous scientific convention held that proteins, not RNAs, governed gene activity in animal cells.