The Breakthrough Prize
, awarded annually for groundbreaking science, is a huge deal. Funded by Internet giants Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan of Facebook; Sergey Brin of Google; entrepreneur and venture capitalist Yuri Milner; and Anne Wojcicki, one of the founders of the genetics company 23andMe, it is the largest prize in the field of science. The Chairman of the Board is Arthur D. Levinson of Apple.
The award is for $3 million, more than twice that of a Nobel Prize. The Breakthrough Prize hasn’t been around for long, it was only begun in 2013, but it’s given specifically to researchers whose work involves discoveries that extend human life. The categories include Life Sciences, Fundamental Physics and Mathematics. Part of winning this prestigious honor involves the honorees participating in lectures and discussions around the world on their research.
While most scientific awards are not Hollywood events, the Breakthrough Prize is the exception. It’s been called the “Oscars of Science.” The most recent awards ceremony was held at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA with comedian Seth McFarlane as master of ceremonies. It was at the 2016 awards that Dr. John Hardy
, a neuroscientist known for his research into the genetics of Alzheimer’s disease, received his award for the research he conducted on the specific mutation that causes AD.
In the late 1980’s, Dr. Hardy was working at St. Mary’s Hospital at the Imperial College of London when he and a colleague were contacted by a woman in Nottingham who had several family members with the devastating neurological disease. She suggested studying her family, and it was this work, which took several years to complete, that led to the discovery of the first genetic cause for Alzheimer’s
. It was already known that there was a gene on chromosome 21 that encoded the amyloid precursor protein (APP), and that there was a link between amyloid pathology and AD, but it was Hardy’s team that sequenced the gene completely. They found that a single mutation in the encoding would result in a person who inherited that mutation getting the disease.
Further work in this area lead to understanding how the disease progressed. It started with the genetic mutation, continued with pathology involving abnormal formations of the protien tau and ended finally with the destruction of brain cells and the ensuing dementia. Before Dr. Hardy’s work, it was known that all of these parts were factors in developing the disease, but it was his genetic sequencing that showed the cause of familial Alzheimer’s disease.
In an interview
with the journal Neurology Today, Dr. Hardy said, “It was an astonishing event. It was great fun, but I was relieved when it was all over, too.” Dr. Hardy confessed, “Being in the public eye so much was stressful. Being in a tuxedo I found stressful.” Check out the video below to learn more about Dr. Hardy’s work in neuroscience and the Breakthrough Prize.