2018 Albert Szent-Györgyi Prize Awarded to NCI Oncologists - NFCR


Duo of Oncology Vaccine Pioneers at the National Cancer Institute to Receive 2018 Annual Szent-Györgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research


February 15, 2018

Bradley Gillenwater, Senior Director for Global Programs & Communications
E-mail: bgillenwater@nfcr.org

First Occasion for Award to Recognize Extraordinary Contributions in Cancer Prevention, Role of Vaccines

BETHESDA, MD – The National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) announced today that the 2018 Szent-Györgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research will be awarded to Douglas R. Lowy, M.D., and John T. Schiller, Ph.D., for development of vaccines for human papilloma virus (HPV), which causes 99% of cervical cancer cases. Collaborators for over 30 years at the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Lowy and Schiller developed the first Food and Drug Administration approved vaccines specifically targeting cancer.

The technology resulting from the tandem’s research, discovery and development efforts has been licensed to pharmaceutical corporations, Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, and is marketed, respectively, as Gardasil®, Gardasil 9® and Cervarix®. According to NCI, widespread administration of any of these three vaccines could reduce the global incidence of new cervical cancer by two-thirds or more, representing at least 350,000 cases per year. The vaccines are also effective against rarer HPV-associated cancers of the penis, vagina and vulva, among others.  

Cervical cancer is the third most common cancer among women worldwide, and the second most frequent cause of cancer-related fatalities, accounting for nearly 300,000 deaths annually. The overwhelming majority of cases and deaths are in the developing world.

The 2018 Szent-Györgyi Prize’s selection committee was unanimous in its decision to recognize Lowy and Schiller, whose contributions in the fields of oncology and virology have changed the paradigm of cancer prevention, previously focused solely on lifestyle factors such as diet, smoking and alcohol consumption. Not one, but two of their discoveries underpin all currently administered HPV vaccines worldwide. While either one of these breakthroughs elevates the reputations of the two scientists to commanding heights, the committee also acknowledged Lowy and Schiller’s comprehensive shepherding of their vaccine technology from theory to animal models, and onward through successful Phase I, II and III clinical trials, while continuing with Phase IV surveillance.

Working initially with the bovine papilloma virus, Lowy and Schiller applied their expertise to HPV. They were able to exploit the discovery that the L1 protein which comprises HPV’s outer layer can self-assemble and form “virus-like particles” which mimic the disease-causing agent but themselves are not infectious. These VLPs could induce HPV-neutralizing antibodies found to prevent cervical and other cancers.

Later, Lowy and Schiller resolved a major challenge to the prospect of commercial-scale HPV vaccine production. The L1 protein derived from the dominant HPV type 16 isolate used by investigators at the time yielded VLPs at a troublingly low rate. The two researchers proposed and proved the hypothesis that this low yield was due to a random mutation in the particular viral isolate they and their peers were studying. Screen and characterize another isolate, and the problem should be solved. It was. 

“Doctors Lowy and Shiller’s work has likely already prevented hundreds of thousands of deaths due to cervical cancer, and this is just the beginning,” said Michael N. Hall, Ph.D., Professor of Biochemistry, Biozentrum of the University of Basel, Switzerland, winner of the 2017 Szent-Györgyi Prize and chair of this year’s Prize selection committee. “They are true heroes in the fight against cancer.”

“Doug Lowy and John Schiller have had monumental impact in the field of cancer sciences and could not be more deserving of this award,” stated Sujuan Ba, Ph.D., co-chair of the 2018 Prize selection committee and President of NFCR. “Many thousands of women’s lives have already been saved and exponentially more productive, disease-free years gained as a result of these two giants of oncology and virology.”

“We are thrilled to have our work recognized by this prestigious award,” said Dr. Lowy, NCI Deputy Director and Chief of its Laboratory of Cellular Oncology (LCO). “As our discoveries wouldn’t have been possible without earlier breakthroughs, our work takes advantage of many advances in HPV and vaccine research.”

“To be included with this esteemed group of scientists who have won this award is a great honor,” stated Dr. Schiller, LCO Deputy Laboratory Chief, Chief of its Section of Neoplastic Disease and a National Institutes of Health Distinguished Investigator. “The exceptional discoveries of these luminaries have had a great impact on cancer treatment, diagnosis and prevention, and on saving lives.”

Doctors Lowy and Schiller will be honored at an award ceremony held Saturday, May 5th at The Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C. Media are invited and encouraged to attend.

About the Szent-Györgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research

The Szent-Györgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research was established in 2006 by the National Foundation for Cancer Research in honor of its co-founder, Albert Szent-Györgyi, M.D., Ph.D., recipient of the 1937 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine. The prize recognizes and honors scientists who have made seminal discoveries that have resulted in, or led toward significant contributions to, cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment with a high impact of saving people’s lives. Its past recipients (and their associated institutions at the time of the award) are:

  • Michael N. Hall, Ph.D., Biozentrum of the University of Basel, Switzerland, 2017
  • Mary-Claire King, Ph.D., University of Washington School of Medicine, 2016
  • Frederick W. Alt, Ph.D., Boston Children’s Hospital & Harvard Medical School, 2015
  • James Allison, Ph.D., University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, 2014
  • Alex Matter, M.D., Experimental Therapeutics Centre & D3, A*STAR, Singapore, 2013
  • Zhen-Yi Wang, M.D., Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, 2012 (shared)
  • Zhu Chen, M.D., Ph.D., Chinese Ministry of Health, 2012 (shared)
  • Beatrice Mintz, Ph.D., Fox Chase Cancer Center, 2011
  • Peter K. Vogt, Ph.D., Scripps Research Institute, 2010
  • Ronald A. DePinho, M.D., Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, 2009
  • Carlo M. Croce, M.D., The Ohio State University, 2008
  • Webster K. Cavenee, Ph.D., Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, University of California San Diego, 2007
  • Harold F. Dvorak, M.D., Harvard Medical School & Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, 2006

Along with Doctors Hall and Ba, the 2018 Szent-Györgyi Prize’s selection committee included the following persons, each an authority in the field of cancer research:

  • Frederick W. Alt, Boston Children’s Hospital & Harvard Medical School
  • Mariano Barbacid, Spanish National Cancer Research Center
  • John Blenis, Weill Cornell Medical College
  • Webster K. Cavenee, Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, University of California San Diego
  • Carlo M. Croce, The Ohio State University
  • Uta Francke, Stanford University School of Medicine
  • Tony Hunter, Salk Institute for Biological Studies
  • Mary-Claire King, University of Washington School of Medicine
  • Alex Matter, Experimental Therapeutics Centre & D3, A*STAR, Singapore
  • Thea Tltsy, University of California San Francisco
  • Peter K. Vogt, Scripps Research Institute

About the 2018 Prize Winners

Douglas R. Lowy, M.D., and John T. Schiller, Ph.D., colleagues at the U.S. National Cancer Institute’s Laboratory of Cellular Oncology since 1983, have co-authored more than 150 publications related to the molecular biology, immunology, and epidemiology of the papilloma virus. Their accomplishments have been recognized by such other awards beyond the Albert Szent-Györgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research as the Albert Sabin Gold Medal Award (2011), the PhRMA Research and Hope Award (2013), the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama (2014) and the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award (2017).

About the National Foundation for Cancer Research

The National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that provides scientists in the lab the funding they need to make game-changing discoveries in cancer treatments, detection, prevention and, ultimately, a cure. It has distinguished itself in the cancer sector by emphasizing long-term, transformative research often overlooked by other major funding sources. With the help of more than 5.3 million individual donors over the last 45 years, NFCR has delivered more than $350 million in funding to public education and cancer research leading to several important, life-saving discoveries. For more information, visit http://www.nfcr.org.