Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences: Hopefully Not Just A Nobel Prize in Medicine 2.0

The recent announcement of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences” and its inaugural 11 recipients is causing quite a bit of buzz in the research community. The Silicon Valley celebrities Art Levinson, Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and Yuri Milner have established the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation, which intends to award five annual prizes in the amount of $3 million each to honor “extraordinary achievements of the outstanding minds in the field of life sciences, enhance medical innovation, and ultimately become a platform for recognizing future discoveries”.


The inaugural recipients are:

1. Cornelia I. Bargmann: For the genetics of neural circuits and behavior, and synaptic guidepost molecules

2. David Botstein: For linkage mapping of Mendelian disease in humans using DNA polymorphisms.

3. Lewis C. Cantley: For the discovery of PI 3-Kinase and its role in cancer metabolism.

4. Hans Clevers: For describing the role of Wnt signaling in tissue stem cells and cancer.

5. Titia de Lange: For research on telomeres, illuminating how they protect chromosome ends and their role in genome instability in cancer.

6. Napoleone Ferrara: For discoveries in the mechanisms of angiogenesis that led to therapies for cancer and eye diseases.

7. 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.

8. Charles L. Sawyers: For cancer genes and targeted therapy.

9. Bert Vogelstein: For cancer genomics and tumor suppressor genes.

10. Robert A. Weinberg: For characterization of human cancer genes.

11. Shinya Yamanaka: For induced pluripotent stem cells.


Anyone familiar with cell biology or molecular biology will recognize most, if not all of these names, because this list consists of many important leaders in these areas. As a stem cell biologist, I am happy to see at least two other stem cell researchers on the list: 1) Shinya Yamanaka (who received the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine) for discovering that adult skin cells could be converted into pluripotent stem cells by just introducing four genes into the cells and 2) Hans Clevers, who is one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of adult stem cell biology and has been instrumental in characterizing stem cells in the intestinal tissue and defining the role of the Wnt signaling pathway, which regulates both proliferation and differentiation of adult stem cells.

The amount awarded to the recipients seems staggeringly high – $3 million is nearly triple the size of the Nobel Prize. However, one also needs to keep in mind that the Breakthrough Prize not only honors past achievements, but also has “the aim of providing the recipients with more freedom and opportunity to pursue even greater future accomplishments.” This means that the laureates are expected (but not necessarily required) to use some of the funds to pursue new directions of research. Biomedical research is expensive. A typical NIH R01 grant, which is the lifeblood of most federally funded biomedical research labs in the United States, has a budget of $250,000 per year and $1,250,000 over a five year period for which funds are usually requested for a single project. The annual amount of $250,000 has to cover the salaries of the employees working in the laboratory, employee benefits such as health insurance, maintenance contracts to keep up existing equipment and thus leaves very little money to buy the actual materials and equipment needed to conduct the experiments. This relatively small amount of money to conduct experiments forces many scientists to be rather conservative in their work. They do not want to invest money in innovative and high-risk projects, because these do not always yield definitive results, and inconclusive results could jeopardize future grant funding and put the jobs of one’s employees or trainees at risk.

The $3 million amount of the Breakthrough Prize, on the other hand, gives the researchers the freedom to try out exciting and high-risk ideas, without having to spend months writing grant proposals. The $3 million amount is enough to fund two high risk NIH R01 grant size projects for five years, that is, if the laureates choose to use all their award money for their research instead of buying a luxury yacht.

Even though all the laureates above are established and internationally renowned scientists, they are at different stages in their research career. David Botstein, for example, is 70 years old and was already a molecular biology legend when I was a grad student in the 1990s. On the other hand, Shinya Yamanaka is only 50 years old and is in the prime of his research career, with hopefully many more decades of research ahead of him. I also like the fact that the foundation will accept nominations from the public, and I hope that its selection process will be more transparent than the closed door policy involved in the selection of Nobel prize laureates.

Despite all my enthusiasm for the new Breakthrough Prize and my hope that it will help re-energize research in the life sciences, I am concerned by the medical focus of the Foundation’s aims. The title of the prize is “Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences”, but the aims are to recognize excellence in research aimed at curing intractable diseases and extending human life.” Why is there such a focus on human life and disease? The field of “life sciences” comprises much more than just human life. It includes areas as diverse as ecology, evolutionary biology and botany, even if they do not have any direct implications for human disease. All of the announced laureates worked on areas that are more or less directly connected to human diseases such as cancer or human physiology. In this sense, this new prize is not too different from the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, merely larger in size, a 2.0 version of the current Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. I have previously written about the lack of a Nobel Prize equivalent that honors efforts in non-medical life sciences. I hope that the Breakthrough Prize foundation reconsiders the medical focus of the prize and that future awards will also be made to life scientists who do not work in areas that directly relate to human life and human disease.


UPDATE: I would like to thank some of the readers for their comments, including those who commented on Twitter and I thought it might be helpful to respond to them in this update. One important point raised by some readers is that it should not be our place to tell philanthropists what to do with their money. It is their money and they get to choose what kind of prizes and charitable foundations they establish. In this particular case, some of the founders of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences may have been influenced by personal experiences of their family members or friends with certain illnesses. This could explain the medical or biomedical focus of the prize.

I completely agree that philanthropists should decide what the goals of an established foundation are, but I still think that it is not wrong to engage in a debate. Especially in the case of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, I think there are at least three good reasons, why this debate is necessary and helpful.

1. The foundation website indicates that it will soon accept online nominations for future awards from the public. This suggests that the philanthropists are open to outside suggestions and perhaps this openness can be extended to engaging in a dialogue about the actual aims of the prize itself. The philanthropists do not have to listen to what scientists say about including awards in the non-medical life sciences, but we scientists should at the very least voice our concerns.

2. The name of the prize is “Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences”, but the explicit aims are very much focused on human disease and extending human life. This is a bit of a disconnect, because the broadly phrased title “life sciences” encompasses far more than just medical research.

3. There are already numerous honors and prizes available for outstanding achievements in medical research or biological research with direct medical impact. What we lack is a Nobel Prize equivalent in the non-medical life sciences. This is not a big surprise, because the human suffering associated with illness probably motivates many philanthropists. It is thus understandable that many philanthropic foundations might gravitate towards valuing research with medical implications more than non-medical research. However, as scientists, we need to remind philanthropists that in the 21st century, we recognize the importance of biodiversity. We want to understand the biology of plants and the wonderful multitude of animal species. We need to work together to preserve the biodiversity on our planet, even if there is no direct link between this type of research and specific human diseases.

Charles Darwin was one of the most brilliant life scientists in the past two centuries. His work has revolutionized how we think in biology. Would Charles Darwin receive a Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences? His work was not necessarily directed at extending human life or treating specific human diseases, but the revolution in biological thought that he initiated ultimately did have a major impact on medical sciences, too. I think we should try our best to establish a prize that honors and supports excellence in the life sciences without obvious or direct medical applications. Such prizes should be awarded to the contemporary Charles Darwins in our midst, without requiring them to prove or justify the medical relevance of their work.


2 thoughts on “Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences: Hopefully Not Just A Nobel Prize in Medicine 2.0

  1. I’ve actually been mulling over this point myself. On the one hand, I applaud non-scientists taking the initiative (and cash) to highlight scientific accomplishments; on the other, I wonder how beneficial the rather narrow focus (as compared to the great breadth of life sciences) is for promoting science. As I looked at the purpose statement for the prizes and the inaugural recipients, I thought a more appropriate name might be “Breakthrough Prize in Biomedical Science”.

    Another striking aspect: Looking at the recipients, you’d think the only recent breakthroughs have come in cancer, genetics, or cancer genetics.


    1. Hi biochembelle, even the aims of the foundation spell out the connection to goals of “curing intractable diseases and extending human life”. An article in the Guardian says the prize is supposed “inject excitement into the sometimes lonely, underfunded quests to understand and combat cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and other maladies.” I am not sure why the Guardian believes that these areas are underfunded and lonely. There are many other diseases which receive very little funding and researchers are indeed more “lonely”.

      I really hope that the current laureates, who get to help pick next year’s recipients, will consider researchers not working on medical problems and include ecologists, marine biologists, plant physiologists, evolutionary biologists, etc. when they hand out next year’s prizes.


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