$250,000 Warren Alpert prize goes to researchers for work on blood cancer drug

Harvard Medical School and the Warren Alpert Foundation announced Wednesday that an annual prize recognizing lab discoveries to advance human health will go to four scientists who developed the drug bortezomib used in treatment of multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood.

The researchers are Julian Adams of Infinity Pharmaceuticals, Alfred Goldberg of Harvard Medical School, and from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Kenneth Anderson and Paul Richardson. The four will share a $250,000 award and will be recognized with the Warren Alpert Foundation Prize at a Sept. 24 celebration.

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Here’s an excerpt from the press release:

Bortezomib’s history began in 1966, when Goldberg, then a medical student, took a break from his studies in order to investigate a basic physiological question: Why do muscles shrink when they are not being used? He found that this loss of muscle mass was due to excessive protein breakdown in cells, a process that was very much a mystery and largely ignored at the time. Over decades, he and his co-workers demonstrated the existence of a new cellular waste-management system that disposes selectively of damaged or unwanted proteins in a cellular structure Goldberg named the proteasome.

In 1993, he teamed up with three Harvard faculty and investigators to establish a company with the primary goal of inhibiting the proteasome in order to treat muscle-wasting conditions. Based on knowledge of the proteasome’s biochemical properties, inhibitors were synthesized that could block its function. Many of these initial compounds, forerunners of bortezomib, have since been used by thousands of investigators to uncover the proteasome’s critical roles in regulating many key processes.

The company then recruited medicinal chemist Julian Adams who led the development of drug-like compounds that could blunt the activity of the proteasome in whole animals. Through collaborations with researchers from the National Cancer Institute, these molecules were found to inhibit growth of tumors as well.

The company eventually became a part of Millennium Pharmaceuticals, which continued to test Adams’ most effective inhibitor, now called bortezomib, on many different types of cancer.