Researchers in life sciences, fundamental physics and mathematics share awards from prize founders Yuri Milner, Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin
It is not often that a scientist walks the red carpet at a Silicon Valley party and has Morgan Freeman award them millions of dollars while Alicia Keys performs on stage and other A-listers rub shoulders with Nasa astronauts.
But the guest list for the Breakthrough prize ceremony is intended to make it an occasion. At the fifth such event in California last night, a handful of the worlds top researchers left their labs behind for the limelight. Honoured for their work on black holes and string theory, DNA repair and rare diseases, and unfathomable modifications to Schrdingers equation, they went home to newly recharged bank accounts.
Founded by Yuri Milner, the billionaire tech investor, with Facebooks Mark Zuckerberg and Googles Sergey Brin, the Breakthrough prizes aim to right a perceived wrong: that scientists and engineers are not appreciated by society. With lucrative prizes and a lavish party dubbed the Oscars of science, Milner and his companions want to elevate scientists to rock star status.
The Silicon Valley backers paid out $25m in prizes at Sundays ceremony at Nasas Ames Research Center in California. It brought the total winnings for researchers in physics, life sciences and mathematics to $175m since the prizes were launched in 2012.
Huda Zoghbi, a Lebanese-born medical scientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, was discussing her postdoctoral researchers latest data when a prize judge called to tell her she had won. Sworn to secrecy, Zoghbi asked her postdoc, Laura, to leave the room while she took the call. I was totally stunned, she said. After the call, I invited Laura back in to continue our meeting, but can you imagine trying to concentrate?
Zoghbis work is a masterclass in scientific investigation. In one branch of research, she set out to understand the genetic causes of a rare condition called spinocerebellar ataxia. She ran tests on families affected by the disorder and found that a mutation in a gene called SCA1 was the sole cause of the disease. She then bred mice with the same mutation so she could study the disorder as it progressed from first symptoms.
Tests on the mice revealed that when SCA1 was mutated, the protein the gene helps to make could not be cleared from the animals cells properly. And just as rubbish builds up in the house when the bins are not emptied, so levels of the protein, ataxin1, built up in mice with the mutation. These cells may have only 10 to 20% more protein, but that little bit extra is enough to wreak havoc in the brain cells, Zoghbi said.
Having teased out the mechanism underlying the disease, Zoghbi went on to find an enzyme that when suppressed caused ataxin1 levels to fall. Her team is now searching for drugs that can block the enzyme. If they find one, it could become a treatment for the devastating disease.
Spinocerebellar ataxia affects one in 100,000 people. But Zoghbis work on the condition, and on another called Rett syndrome, led her to study the most common neurodegenerative diseases, Parkinsons and Alzheimers. In both groups of patients, abnormal proteins build up in the brain and potentially kill off neurons. In her latest work, Zoghbi showed that blocking an enzyme called Nuak1 stopped a protein called tau building up in the brains of mice. High levels of tau have long been linked to Alzheimers disease. What we have is a potential druggable target for dementia, she said.
Zoghbi, who received one of the five Breakthrough prizes in life sciences, plans to set up a mentorship award; a fund to help young postdocs pursue their own ideas; and scholarships at her alma mater, the American University in Beirut.
The prizes may give scientists a glimpse of fame, but celebrity has little appeal, Zoghbi said. Material things and limelight are fleeting, they come and go. You could give me all the money in the world to do another job and I wouldnt do it, she said. I am working on something that will help people, and that reward is with you every day. She sees her colleagues as an extended family: her lab members call themselves Zoghbians.
Among the other awards handed out on Sunday was the Breakthrough prize in mathematics, won by Jean Bourgain at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton for work that ranges from extensions to Schrdingers equation, to the unification of maths itself. The Breakthrough prize in fundamental physics was shared by three academics for work on string theory and black holes. Joe Polchinski at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has studied the baffling question of what happens to information that tumbles into black holes, plans to use the winnings for the betterment of science, but said he was terrified at what the next US administration might mean for research.
Morgan Freeman was invited to host Sundays ceremony, where others on the guest list included Alex A-Rod Rodriguez, the former Nasa astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly, will.i.am, and Bryce Dallas Howard, who as Claire Dearing in Jurassic World justified the creation of the troublesome Indominus rex with the line: We needed something scary and easy to pronounce. The celebrities, however, might find they are as unknown to the scientists as the scientists are to the them. My nieces and nephews will know more about them then I do, said Polchinski.
Another life sciences prize winner on Sunday was Stephen Elledge, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School. I wasnt expecting it, he told the Guardian. What can you say when someone tells you they are going to give you $3m? Im not used to that, I can tell you.
Elledge discovered how cells respond to DNA damage. The mechanism can kill off the most tattered cells and put others into a state of suspended animation called senescence. The process prevents cancer by shutting down abnormal cells, but senescence also triggers inflammation that drives ageing. Elledge is now looking for ways to turn off the inflammation, or wipe out senescent cells completely. That could impact all kinds of diseases in the ageing population, he said.
He is still working out what to do with his winnings, but one hope is to set up scholarships for disadvantaged kids from his hometown of Paris, Illinois. He also wants to support institutions that could come under pressure in the next administration. Now that the political terrain has shifted in the US there are going to be a lot more places that will need help, he said. In the US there is pressure against science. People deny the validity of science and facts. These are dark days. And as scientists we have to push back. We have to stand up to the challenge.