Carl June, Vertex execs and Parkinson's scientists win Breakthrough prizes

CAR-T cell therapy pioneer Carl June, M.D., and scientists from Vertex Pharmaceuticals are among the life sciences winners of 2024 Breakthrough Prizes, awards established by a group of influential tech titans as a means to recognize major achievements in basic science research.

The Breakthrough Prize is the name of both an annual event attended by stars of science and Hollywood and of the five $3 million awards handed out during it to researchers in the life sciences, physics and math. The honor is the most lucrative award of its kind—for comparison, a Nobel Prize is worth around $1 million—and was created in 2012 by Israeli physicist and billionaire Yuri Milner and his wife Julia along with Google co-founder Sergey Brin, 23andMe co-founder Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan.

June will receive a Breakthrough Prize alongside Michel Sadelain, M.D., Ph.D., an immunologist at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. The scientists’ labs worked together over decades to engineer T cells to recognize a patient’s individual cancer, resulting in the CAR-T cell therapies that have dramatically boosted remission and survival in blood cancers that didn’t respond to initial treatment with chemotherapy.

Vertex scientists Sabine Hadida, Ph.D., Paul Negulescu, Ph.D., and Fredrick Van Goor, Ph.D., will share a Breakthrough Prize for the invention of Trikafta, a trio of drugs that reverse the symptoms and may dramatically improve the life spans of people with the genetic disease cystic fibrosis. The drug was first approved in 2019 for ages 12 and up and earlier this year was expanded to treat patients as young as 2 years old.

The third and final life sciences Breakthrough Prize will be awarded to Ellen Sidransky, M.D., Thomas Gasser, M.D., Ph.D., and Andrew Singleton, Ph.D., for uncovering the genetic underpinnings of Parkinson’s disease. Sidransky, a pediatrician and geneticist who studies the link between Gaucher disease and Parkinson’s, discovered that mutations in the gene GBA1 are a risk factor for Parkinson’s. Meanwhile, Gasser and Singleton revealed that mutations in the gene LRRK2 also confer a risk for the degenerative condition.

The Breakthrough Prize in physics will go to John Cardy, Ph.D., and Alexander Zamolodchikov, Ph.D., for their work on quantum field theory, which includes particle physics as well as magnetism and the content of black holes. The award in mathematics will go to Simon Brendle, Ph.D., for his contributions to differential geometry, which includes the study of smooth shapes and spaces.

The scientists will be recognized at the Breakthrough Prize ceremony on April 13 in Los Angeles. Although the organizers haven’t disclosed this year’s host or celebrity attendees, last year’s event was presented by James Corden and included performances by John Legend, and Estelle, along with appearances from Danny DeVito, Gal Gadot, Brie Larson, Robert Downey Jr. and others.