Dr. Lewis C. Cantley, the Meyer Director of the Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center, has won the 2015 Canada Gairdner International Award from the Gairdner Foundation for his groundbreaking discovery of a family of enzymes that are fundamental to understanding cancer.
The Canada Gairdner International Awards are given annually to five biomedical scientists from around the world whose significant contributions to medicine have increased the understanding of human biology and disease. More than 320 scientists have received Canada Gairdner International Awards since their inception in 1959, and of them 82 — or one in four — have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Dr. Cantley will receive his award, which carries a 100,000 Canadian dollar cash prize, on Oct. 29 in Toronto.
“The Canada Gairdner International Award is one of the most prestigious prizes in the world,” said Dr. Cantley, who is also the Margaret and Herman Sokol Professor in Oncology Research and a professor of cancer biology in medicine at Weill Cornell. “The fact that my peers had selected me to receive this award is a great honor.”
Dr. Cantley is being recognized for his groundbreaking discovery of an enzyme called phosphoinositide 3-kinase (PI3K) and the signaling pathway that it controls. Dr. Cantley found that human cancers frequently occur due to activation of PI3K, a breakthrough that has led to the development of drugs that target that signaling pathway — the first of which was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year. Dr. Cantley predicts that many more PI3K drugs will be approved in the future.
Just as a city must import food and energy, a cell needs to bring in resources to sustain itself and grow. But when should the drawbridges be lowered?
For cells, the answer depends on a chain of interactions between different kinds of molecules – each one triggering the next. Together these interactions convey a message about the environment outside so that cells can respond and bring supplies on board when they are there to be had.
In the mid-1980s, Lewis Cantley was trying to figure out how insulin activates cells to take up glucose, a key nutrient. Together with colleagues he discovered an enzyme that picks up the message that insulin has been detected by receptors that poke through the cell membrane. The enzyme fires up the internal signalling system and ultimately causes the cell to pump the glucose in.
Although it has the unfamiliar name of phosphoinositide 3-kinase, Cantley’s discovery is crucial to body function. When the system lags, it allows glucose to build up in the bloodstream, which can lead to diabetes. When it runs in overdrive, it can allow cancerous cells to rapidly devour the nutrients that feed tumour growth.
“We believe this will be a game-changer in the war against cancer,” Dr. Cantley said, “and will make a big impact on patient care.”
In addition to the international award, the Gairdner Foundation bestows the Canada Gairdner Global Health Award and the Canada Gairdner Wightman Award. In all, seven scientists were chosen by their peers for the 2015 Canada Gairdner Awards, Canada’s only globally known international science accolade.