Advances in eye scans and protein structure win 2023 Lasker Awards | ET REALITY

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The prestigious Lasker Awards were presented Thursday to scientists who have made advances in diagnosing eye diseases, predicting the structure of cellular proteins and the complexities of the immune system. The awards, closely followed by researchers in biomedical fields, often presage Nobel Prizes.

The Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award was awarded to a team of three scientists, led by James G. Fujimoto, a professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who helped invent optical coherence tomography.

The technology can detect diseases such as macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy earlier than previous methods, preventing blindness. OCT is now commonly used in ophthalmology offices, where the patient simply rests their chin and forehead against an instrument for a brief scan.

The method, invented in 1991, provides an astonishing amount of detail about the retina, a layer of tissue at the back of the eye essential for vision.

“It’s not much thicker than a strand of hair, but it has 10 inner layers,” said Dr. David Huang, an ophthalmologist at Oregon Health & Science University’s Casey Eye Institute, who helped invent the method.

Before OCT, an ophthalmologist could dilate a patient’s eyes with drops to enlarge the pupil and then use a magnifying glass and a special light to examine the retina. An OCT scan “can measure the thickness of the retina, fluid pockets in it, and abnormal blood vessel growth,” detecting small lesions that have not yet caused symptoms, Dr. Huang added.

It estimated that approximately 40 million OCT examinations are performed worldwide each year.

Eric A. Swanson, an MIT researcher and member of the team that invented the technique, noted that the instruments used for OCT today have been based on enormous advances.

“Systems are thousands of times faster today,” Swanson said. “They have higher resolution, they are more automated and they have higher definition.”

OCT tests are typically much cheaper than CT scans or other technologies to examine the body in great detail. OCT has been used to inspect arteries, an indication of how it can be applied to other parts of the body.

In 2020, London-based artificial intelligence lab DeepMind solved what was called “the protein folding problem.” The work, led by Demis Hassabis, the company’s CEO, and John Jumper, a researcher, received the Albert Lasker Prize for Basic Medical Research.

Proteins are workhorses in the cellular machinery of all living things, including viruses, bacteria, and the human body. They begin as chains of chemical compounds before folding into three-dimensional shapes that define what they can and cannot do.

Identifying the shape of a protein is often important for fighting diseases and developing new therapies. A bacteria could resist an antibiotic by creating a particular protein, for example. If scientists can determine its shape, they could overcome this resistance.

For decades, this task required extensive experimentation with x-rays, microscopes, and other physical tools in the laboratory. Next, Dr. Jumper and other DeepMind researchers built AlphaFold, an artificial intelligence system that can be given the chain of amino acids that make up a given protein and reliably predict its shape in a matter of minutes.

A year later, DeepMind freely shared the tool with scientists around the world, instantly boosting efforts to understand diseases, develop new drugs, and explore various mysteries of the human body. By 2022, the lab had published predictions for nearly every protein known to science: more than 200 million proteins, observed in a million species.

Some scientists have used the technology to better understand the coronavirus. Others have used AlphaFold to predict how viruses will mutate or how the body discards proteins, both of which can affect the progression of diseases and other ailments.

In recent months, researchers have turned to this type of technology to generate entirely new proteins that do not exist in nature, as a way to accelerate drug discovery. “I’m amazed at how many different and creative ways people use it,” Dr. Jumper said in an interview.

The Lasker-Koshland Prize for Special Achievement in Medical Sciences went to Dr. Piet Borst, a biochemist at the Netherlands Cancer Institute known for his discoveries about the cunning of certain parasitic diseases and the resistance of cancer cells to drugs. chemotherapy.

The author of more than 400 articles, Dr. Borst discovered that parasites, including trypanosomes, the cause of African sleeping sickness, replace their surface proteins to hide from the immune system’s defenses.

“There is no organism in nature, or a parasite in nature, that has such a huge repertoire for changing its surface,” he said.

Dr. Borst is also credited with discovering how some chemotherapy drugs are kept out of the brain and body by transport proteins, forcing doctors to use intravenous methods.

His research has been so extensive that “it’s chaotic,” he said.

In recent years, Dr. Borst has denounced the harm of misinformation to public health. He cited President Donald J. Trump’s embrace of ineffective medications and disinfectants that he wrongly claimed could stop the coronavirus.

“That’s an important task for science: it’s not only finding new things, but also convincing the general public that the kind of facts we find are not alternative facts but real facts,” he said.

“Our society, increasingly complex and more scientific, absolutely depends on the scientific method to know where the truth is and what is conspiracy theory, quackery, alternative medicine or pseudoscience.”

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