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Early genetics discovery wins Cohen the Albany Prize
Largest medical award after Nobel shared with colleague


Research laying the groundwork for modern genetic engineering has earned Stanley Cohen, MD, the Kwoh-Ting Li Professor at the School of Medicine, the 2004 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine, the largest medical award after the Nobel Prize.

The annual $500,000 prize is the result of a $50-million gift by New York City philanthropist Morris "Marty" Silverman to encourage and recognize extraordinary and sustained contributions to improving health care and promoting biomedical research with translational benefits applied to improved patient care. Cohen shares the prize with Herbert Boyer, PhD, co-author on his breakthrough 1973 paper, a founder of Genentech and professor emeritus at UC-San Francisco.

Stanley Cohen

Cohen and Boyer are the fourth recipients of the prize. They appeared at an award ceremony and press conference in Albany, N.Y., on April 23.

The pair's discovery allowed researchers to transfer pieces of DNA between organisms, a process also called DNA cloning, opening the door to the modern field of genetic engineering. Among the many lifesaving discoveries developed using DNA cloning are insulin to regulate blood sugar in diabetics, a clot-dissolving agent for stroke and heart attack victims, a human growth hormone for underdeveloped children and interferon for cancer patients.

"The world owes an infinite debt of gratitude to Drs. Cohen and Boyer for their seminal research, which serves as the basis for today's biomedical sciences and biotechnology industries," said James J. Barba, chairman of the board, president and chief executive officer of Albany Medical Center, who also chairs the national selection committee for the prize. "Prior to their groundbreaking work, the scientific community was uncertain whether genes could be isolated and transplanted into a foreign host where they could survive and replicate. Their collaborative discovery has spawned a multitude of treatments and diagnostic therapies for some of mankind's most pernicious diseases."

Cohen and Boyer began their collaboration at a meeting in Hawaii in 1972. Cohen had been working with circular pieces of DNA called plasmids, which sometimes contain genes that make bacteria resistant to antibiotics. He had learned how to transfer these plasmids -- and their antibiotic-resistant genes -- between bacteria, but wanted to modify the plasmids to learn more about how those genes functioned.

At the Hawaii conference Boyer described a new method of cutting DNA such that the broken ends were genetically sticky and could easily reattach. This method, involving a DNA-cutting enzyme called EcoRI, snipped the DNA at very precise locations. Cohen and Boyer thought that by cutting plasmids and other DNA with EcoRI, the pieces might stick together in novel configurations.

"Although the concept seemed straightforward, no one knew at the time whether novel plasmids constructed in this way would be capable of being propagated in living cells," Cohen said.

In studies back at their respective Stanford and UCSF labs, Cohen, Boyer and their colleagues Annie Chang and Robert Helling used this method to snip a gene for antibiotic resistance out of one plasmid and place it in a different plasmid. They put the reconfigured plasmid into E. coli and those bacteria became resistant to the antibiotic. Bacteria passed this plasmid to their offspring, conferring antibiotic resistance to future generations.

This novel way of swapping DNA between E. coli was the basis for the 1973 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and a Stanford/UCSF patent, which has now been licensed to more than 400 companies.

After achieving success in propagating new combinations of genes between E. coli strains, the researchers tested whether genes could be swapped between different organisms. Cohen and Chang transferred a gene from the bacteria Staphyloccus aureus into E. coli. Although the two bacteria are biologically quite different, E. coli replicated the S. aureus gene and produced the functional protein. Later experiments by Cohen, Boyer and their colleagues showed that even animal genes inserted into a plasmid could make normal proteins in E. coli.

From these experiments the modern field of genetic engineering was born. Gene cloning is now used in biology labs around the world to make crops hardier, create new drugs and better understand disabling diseases.

Stanford genetics professor confronts fear of knowledge (10/17/01)

Innovators Cohen, Fogarty to enter National Inventors Hall of Fame (5/16/01)

Pathology professor Butcher takes home Sweden's other big prize, the Crafoord (2/11/04)