Friday, April 24, 2009

Immune System Pioneers Share America's Largest Prize in Medicine in Albany Today

I have to admit, I've been quiet on the blogging front even since explaining why the first few months of this year, I was effectively unable to do much d-blogging (I was in the process of moving). To some extent, my decision to be quiet on the blogging front since then has been driven by the fact that #1) my goal has always been to raise awareness of issues that others weren't aware of or communicating and #2) with the advent of social media sites like TuDiabetes and the proliferation of diabetes bloggers (referred to herein as d-bloggers). When I began blogging in the Fall of 2005, there were only a handful of us out there, including Scott Johnson, Amy Tenderich, Kerri Morrone-Sparling, Allison Blass, Allie Beatty, Gina Capone, Bernard Farrell and a few others.

Today, there are hundreds of d-bloggers, which has proven the viability of an informal group of people blogging about a common interest, in this case, type 1 diabetes. I am proud to be among the original members of the Diabetes OC (online community) and still remain a blogger (a few of the earlier diabetes bloggers have since stopped blogging).

Anyway, in keeping with my personal blogging mission of communicating truly "breaking" diabetes news, today's posting originates from Albany, NY (the capital of the state I now live in, and a place I generally feel makes news mostly for government waste, inefficiency, bureaucracy and all the things I despise about government, but generally NOT for its contributions to society). Today's news, however, marks a recognition of some great progress for autoimmune disease research which has taken place in a remarkably short period of time (in the medical profession, anyway).

The news: Today, the nation's richest prize in medicine and biomedical research was awarded to three immune system researchers for work in the field of immunology. The prize, known as the Albany Medical Center Prize, is the largest medicine/science award in the United States, and ranks second only to the $1.4 million Nobel Prize among medical prizes. The Albany prize was established in 2000 with a $50 million gift from the late Morris "Marty" Silverman, a New York City businessman who wanted to encourage health and biomedical research.

This year, the $500,000 Albany Medical Center Prize is being shared by Dr. Ralph Steinman of Rockefeller University, Dr. Charles Dinarello, of the University of Colorado, and Dr. Bruce Beutler, of The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA. The co-recipients of the Prize, who will share the award, were honored at a news conference and luncheon held today at the Hilton Garden Inn at Albany Medical Center.

So what's the Albany Medical Center Prize being awarded for?

Well, all three of this year's recipients have effectively transformed the emerging field of immunology with groundbreaking discoveries that led to a better understanding of how the human immune system senses and responds to infectious agents. The shared prize represents decades of work in three labs. Their scientific research has led to trials on new therapies for people with infections, autoimmune disorders, and other immune system-related diseases. Autoimmune diseases (and there are more than 80 such diseases) are among the most challenging for medicine to address. For most autoimmune diseases, patients are usually told there is no known cure for their diseases, and they're given palliative (meaning a remedy that alleviates symptoms without actually curing) medications intended to reduce the impact of their diseases, without actually changing the outcome of the diseases. But with new knowledge on how the immune system functions, more breakthroughs (and perhaps disease treatments or, dare I say it, cures) are likely to emerge in the future.

"Collectively, the work of these scientists has led to a dramatically better understanding of the human immune system, in health and in disease," said James J. Barba, president and chief executive officer of Albany Medical Center, who served as chairman of the National Selection Committee. "That knowledge has already directly resulted in new therapies for people with conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, Crohn's disease and cancer. And, the discoveries they have made about how the body senses and responds to infection remain the basis of active research that holds the promise of new and improved vaccines and innovative ways to harness the power of the immune system to better fight viruses and bacterial illness. Their achievements are nothing short of astounding."

All three pioneers have extensively published research and have been cited by countless medical and scientific journals including the Lancet, Nature, The New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association. They have received numerous other prestigious national and international awards and honors as well as a number of honorary degrees.

Their work began with Steinman in 1973, when he discovered a white blood cell he named the dendritic cell. Dinarello then built upon Steinman's work to develop therapies to block the immune system's inflammatory reaction when it's harmful. Dinarello identified the molecule in the body that produces inflammation. Since discovering that molecule, later named Interleukin-1, he's focused his work on blocking it to relieve inflammation. This, and discoveries of different Interleukins, has resulted in treatment for several immune disorders (namely, autoimmune responses that cause diseases). Beutler then defined what another type of protein produced by the dendritic cells does for immune systems. It's called Tumor Necrosis Factor, or TNF. Beutler isolated TNF and explained that it also played a role in responding to inflammation. (For those of you following the Dr. Faustman/Nathan trial at Massachusetts General Hospital, just remember that her work builds upon the foundation of research discovered by Steinman and Dinarello). More recently, Beutler created a medication that blocks TNF when it goes haywire. The medication - brand name Enbrel - has been used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis. Although Enbrel does not address the immune response which causes type 1 diabetes, it has lead to more research and trials, further expanding the medical profession's understanding of how the immune system works and ways to mitigate an immune response that causes disease.

For more in-depth biographies of the 2009 winners, and information on previous winners of the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, go to:

Their groundbreaking discoveries are best described in the press release at the following link:

Another story from the Albany Times-Union can be found at

AP/Seattle Times

If you recall, I documented some of the groundbreaking research into type 1 diabetes now in various stages of development. I would simply close by reminding everyone of the Boston Consulting Group chart (which has been widely-cited by the drug industry, anyway) on the various stages in drug industry development. In essence, treatments for autoimmune diseases are expected to emerge in the coming years:

Note that in red are events I've added to the chart to show some of the key developments (there aren't that many) relative to type 1 diabetes treatments. According to this observation (as you can see, most of it is retrospective), we stand on the edge of a new era in medicine and pharmaceutical development, and top on that list are treatments to address the core issue of autoimmunity, a group of some 80+ diseases (including type 1 diabetes) which have been pretty poorly addressed by the medical profession. You can see that around 2010 (less than a year away!), the next "wave" of drug development is expected to emerge.

For more on the pending trials for various type 1 autoimmunity trials, see my October 22, 2008 posting at Thanks to the researchers being awarded in Albany today, these trials are possible!


Scott K. Johnson said...

That is exciting news! I hope that we'll see some real progress in the next few years. A slow road is better than no road right?

Anonymous said...


Interesting post, especially the chart. This chart means about as much as a charting of stock performances at the peak of Wall Street's boom. Lots of activity, lots of treatment--but not a CURE in sight. In fact, we may be headed down the wrong road, much like Wall Street. I found in my years as an academic scientist that cellular biologists concentrate on "the tree" and rarely see "the forest." The possibility that their findings are little more than a downstream phenomenon still exists . . . but I suppose headline production serves as a surrogate endpoint . . . an end in itself.


Pia- Staph infection said...

Great site and very informative post. Hope to see and read more of your articles.

Anonymous said...

Hi Scott,
Who is on your short list as the leading investigators and laboratories trying to find a cure for diabetes?