Stem cell researcher Irving Weissman awarded Albany Prize

Weissman and Johns Hopkins’ Bert Vogelstein will share the 2019 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research for discoveries in stem cell and cancer biology.

- By Krista Conger

Stanford's Irving Weissman will share the 2019 Albany Medical Center Prize with Bert Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins University.
Norbert von der Groeben

Irving Weissman, MD, director of Stanford’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, will receive the 2019 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research for his pioneering work in stem cell and cancer biology, including the identification of blood-forming stem cells and their role in blood cancers, as well as the discovery of a “don’t eat me” signal on the surface of many cancer cells that protects them from being eliminated by the immune system.

Weissman is a professor of pathology and of developmental biology at the Stanford School of Medicine and is the director of the Ludwig Center for Cancer Stem Cell Research at Stanford. He will share the $500,000 prize with Bert Vogelstein, MD, who is the Clayton Professor of Oncology and Pathology at Johns Hopkins University’s Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center and the director of its Lustgarten Laboratory for Pancreatic Cancer Research.

Vogelstein is known for discovering that a protein called p53 functions as a tumor suppressor and that its inactivation is critical to the development of many human cancers. He was also the first to demonstrate in colorectal cancer that disease progression is a multistep process resulting from the sequential accumulation of mutations in specific cancer-associated genes. Together, Weissman and Vogelstein transformed the understanding of cancer biology, cancer genomics and disease initiation and progression, paving the way for earlier diagnosis and more effective treatments for a wide range of diseases including leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and severe combined immunodeficiency (also known as “bubble boy” disease).

The two will be presented with the prize at a Sept. 25 ceremony in Albany, New York.

“Dr. Weissman’s groundbreaking work in advancing our understanding of blood-forming stem cells and cancer has transformed many aspects of modern medicine,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine. “The discovery of the ‘don’t eat me’ signal on cancer cells promises to lead to novel clinical applications that will improve human health. We congratulate Dr. Weissman on this well-deserved recognition.”

Adult stem cells are unique in that they can both self-renew and make progenitor cells that give rise to all the specific cell types in a particular tissue of the body. In 1988, Weissman was the first to identify and isolate in mice the hematopoietic, or blood-forming, stem cells that form all the cells of the blood and immune system. In 1992, he and his group found the human blood-forming cells. He and his group have since painstakingly traced the cellular steps leading from a stem cell to each of the many types of mature blood and immune cells in humans, and identified those that go awry in many blood diseases and cancers. 

Weissman also identified a molecule called CD47 that exists on the surface of nearly every human cancer cell and protects them from attack by immune cells called macrophages. An antibody targeting CD47, which the researchers have termed a “don’t eat me” signal, is in clinical trials in people with several types of blood and solid cancers. Overexpression of CD47 is also implicated in fibrotic diseases such as scleroderma and surgical adhesions. Recently, Weissman identified additional “don’t eat me” signals, each of which is expressed by particular types of cancers. 

“I’m especially honored to share this award with Bert Vogelstein, whose work I have followed for many years and greatly admire,” said Weissman, who is the Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Professor for Clinical Investigation in Cancer Research. “Inspired by his earlier work on colon cancer, we were able to show that nearly all stepwise mutations that lead to the development of leukemia and blood diseases, such as myelodysplastic syndrome, occur in blood-forming stem cells, apparently hitchhiking in these self-renewing cells to form disease clones. It’s a fantastic feeling to join the group of highly accomplished past recipients of the Albany Prize.”

The Albany Prize is funded by a $50 million gift from New York City philanthropist Morris Silverman. It has been awarded since 2001 to encourage and recognize extraordinary and sustained contributions to improving health care and promoting biomedical research with translational benefits for better patient care. In 2015, Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, Stanford professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, received the award.

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