September 13, 2008 / 9:04 PM / 12 years ago

Statin pioneer, gene experts win US medical awards

WASHINGTON, Sept 13 (Reuters) - The Japanese scientist who discovered the first cholesterol-lowering statin drug was named on Saturday as one of five recipients of the Albert Lasker Medical Research Awards, sometimes dubbed “America’s Nobels.”

Joining Akira Endo in getting awards were Stanley Falkow for his insights on disease-causing microbes and Victor Ambros, David Baulcombe and Gary Ruvkun for discovering the tiny RNAs that regulate gene function and are involved in many diseases.

The 74-year-old Endo, of Biopharm Research Laboratories Inc in Tokyo, developed the first statin in the 1970s, setting off a revolution in prevention and treatment of heart disease that would make statins the world’s best-selling drugs.

Statins lower the risk of heart attack or stroke by reducing levels of triglycerides and fatty substances such as low-density lipoprotein, also known as LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. They also raise levels of high-density lipoprotein — HDL or “good” cholesterol.

They may have other benefits such as lowering cancer risk, several studies have suggested.

Statins include atorvastatin, made by Pfizer Inc (PFE.N) under the brand name Lipitor; pravastatin or Pravachol, made by Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY.N); fluvastatin, made by Novartis AG NOVN.VX under the brand name Lescol, and several others.

Falkow, 74, of Stanford University School of Medicine in California, is being recognized for his research that helped in the understanding of how bacteria transmit antibiotic resistance to one another and how they cause infections and disease.

Ambros, 54, Ruvkun, 56, and Baulcombe, 56, are being honored for finding ribonucleic acid or RNA molecules, some of which are called microRNAs, that control many genes in animals and plants. Their work changed the way scientists understand how genes are regulated.

Ambros is with the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Baulcombe is with the University of Cambridge in Britain. Ruvkun is with Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

The Lasker Awards have been presented since 1946 by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, which supports biomedical research. The awards recognize outstanding medical research discoveries and lifetime contributions to medical science. (Editing by Maggie Fox and Xavier Briand)

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