The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation has bestowed its prestigious Lasker–Koshland Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science upon David Baltimore, PhD, president emeritus and distinguished professor of biology at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, and 1975 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, calling him “one of the premier biomedical scientists of the last five decades.”
The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation has bestowed its prestigious Lasker–Koshland Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science upon David Baltimore, PhD, president emeritus and distinguished professor of biology at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, and 1975 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine.
In making the announcement, the Lasker Foundation called Baltimore “one of the premier biomedical scientists of the last five decades,” adding that he “is renowned for the breadth and beauty of his discoveries in virology, immunology, and cancer; for his academic leadership; for his mentorship of prominent scientists; and for his influence as a public advocate for science.”
Baltimore's scientific career began in high school when he spent a summer studying genetics in mice at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, ME. He left hooked on science, calling himself “a nerdy kid who sensed that dedicating his life to research might just be the contribution to society that would justify taking up space on an increasingly crowded planet” in his award acceptance remarks.
A variety of groundbreaking discoveries, described in a Cell commentary, followed. For example, in 1970, two years after joining the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, he discovered that certain RNA-containing tumor viruses could copy their RNA into DNA, turning conventional thinking on its head. Until then, scientists believed that genetic information was translated only from DNA to RNA and then to proteins. Baltimore attributed this phenomenon to an enzyme called reverse transcriptase. His conclusions, independently brought to the fore by Howard Temin, PhD, and Renato Dalbecco, MD, led to the 1975 Nobel Prize for the trio (Cell 2021 Sep 24 [Epub ahead of print]).
Baltimore later turned his attention to immunology, discovering the transcription factor NFĸB, which plays a central role in regulating immune response. Abnormal regulation of NFĸB has been implicated in many cancers, as well as in inflammatory diseases such as atherosclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
His lab also determined the cause of chronic myelogenous leukemia—a chromosomal translocation that produces the BCR–ABL kinase. This work eventually led to the development of imatinib, one of the first therapies to take aim at a genetic driver of oncogenesis.
Lasker–Koshland awardees must also demonstrate “scientific statesmanship that engender[s] the deepest feelings of awe and respect,” another area where Baltimore excelled. When recombinant DNA technology sparked concerns about biohazards, he and his colleagues organized the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA in 1973. Attendees established voluntary safety guidelines and agreed to halt certain types of experiments. Biological research institutions subsequently established recombinant DNA safety committees.
Baltimore's dive into science policy led to a collaboration with philanthropist Jack Whitehead to launch what became the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at MIT, unique at its time as an autonomous institute under the umbrella of another; Baltimore became its first director.
“The Whitehead Institute was a new model for a research institution—an independent research institute having a teaching affiliation with a top-tier university,” said Ruth Lehmann, PhD, the Whitehead's current director. “The model Baltimore created allowed him to attract the brightest scientific minds and create a space for bold creative science to flourish.”
Educating, training, and mentoring “countless graduate students and postdocs that have gone on to make incredible contributions to science,” said Lehmann, “has been a consistent thread throughout his career” as well. For example, “he created the Whitehead Fellows Program, which offers exceptional scientists the opportunity to start their own research program after receiving their PhD in lieu of a traditional postdoc,” she added.
“It has been a great ride over the 65-plus years since I was at Jackson Lab,” said Baltimore at the conclusion of his Lasker remarks, during which he expressed gratitude to the trainees who joined him on the ride. “It has been a blessing to be able to play a role in the unfolding story [of molecular biology.]” –Suzanne Rose