“American Nobels” awarded for scientific excellence

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

cochlear implant
Now that this baby can hear with his cochlear implant, he needs some peace and quiet to take a nap!

Every year since 1945, the Lasker Foundation distributes their world-renowned Lasker Awards – considered the “American Nobels” – to the most influential individuals who contribute to the prevention of human disease. This year, there are seven winners who will be honored in three different categories on September 20, 2013.

The first category is for clinical medical research, which honors people who have improved treatment for patients. Dr. Graeme M. Clark, Dr. Ingeborg Hochmair, and Dr. Blake S. Wilson won for their creation of the modern cochlear implant, a special device that allows deaf people to hear! Usually, when we hear, sound waves are amplified by our pinna (the fleshy part of our ear), travel down the ear canal, and then cause the eardrum to vibrate. The bouncing motions of the membrane move three tiny bones in our ears called ossicles (the smallest bones in our body!), which then apply a bit of pressure on a liquid-filled cavity known as the cochlea. The pressure causes a different membrane within the cochlea to bend tiny hair cells inside. Finally, the hair cells send a signal to the auditory nerve connected to the brain, and you hear sound. The entire process only takes less than a second to complete!

However, most hearing loss stems from damage to the tiny hair cells in the cochlea, so there is no signal sent to the brain. In order to combat this issue, the three doctors created the cochlear implant. The device can pick up sound waves and send information directly to the auditory nerve. Since the device was created, around 320,000 deaf people around the world have regained their ability to hear. According to the Lasker Foundation, this process, “for the first time, substantially restored a human sense with a medical intervention.”

Well, such a device couldn’t have been invented at all if there wasn’t a basic understanding of the human auditory system! This is why the Lasker Awards have dedicated a whole category for basic medical research. This year, the award is going to  Richard H. Scheller and Thomas C. Südhof for their outstanding research on neurotransmission – the process by which nerve cells communicate with other cells in the brain. You see, there are a bunch of proteins that nerves use to communicate, but 25 years ago, researchers didn’t know a single one. However, Scheller and Südhof dove deep into the brain and got to crackin’. They uncovered very detailed information about the various molecules the brain cells use to communicate with each other. Thanks to these two scientists, researchers now have in-depth understanding of many brain functions such as learning and memory! They also know more about several mental disorders like schizophrenia.

Bill Gates school
Ever since the Gates Foundation began supporting the Osun State Home Grown School Feeding and Health Program, school attendance nearly doubled in Ghana!

Research labs definitely do not come cheap, though. There are tons of things to pay for such as salaries, research equipment, lab animal care, and travel that add up to a hefty sum. Not everyone is willing to invest money to support wacky-sounding lab experiments, so individuals who do donate money perform a great public service. This year, the Lasker Award for public service is being awarded to Bill and Melinda Gates for “spurring initiatives and research that tackle some of the planet’s toughest health problems.” Over the years, the power couple have donated billions of dollars from their foundation to fund research from public and private health agencies.They also bought huge amounts of basic vaccines and sent the medicine to poor countries that can’t afford it. Those are two simple examples, but Mr. and Mrs. Gates extend their influence to many other important realms such as sanitation, nutrition, and education. Even though the couple has invested a lot of time, money, and energy into public service, they say “we’re not even halfway through the kind of impact we can have in global health.” Mr. Gates added, “I wish we were.” Wow, what great people!

Since the Lasker Awards began in 1945, more than 80 recipients have gone on to win the Nobel Prize. Hopefully, these seven fine researchers and public service agents will win that award too. They sure deserve it.

Featured image courtesy of World Economic Forum on Flickr. Image of cochlear implant baby courtesy of Bjorn Knetsch on Wikimedia. Image of schoolboy in Ghana courtesy of Gates Foundation on Flickr.