Breakthrough Prize 2020 Winners Announced
The winners of the eighth annual Breakthrough Prize were announced earlier today ahead of the November 3 awards ceremony at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain view, California. This year's winners—in the fields of life sciences, fundamental physics, and mathematics—will be awarded a sum total of $21.6 million.
For Life Sciences: Virginia Man-Yee Lee, University of Pennsylvania
For discovering TDP43 protein aggregates in frontotemporal dementia and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and revealing that different forms of alpha-synuclein, in different cell types, underlie Parkinson’s disease and Multiple System Atrophy.
Description: Most patients with Alzheimer’s exhibit a web of tangles in their brain cells made up of tau proteins. In 1991, Lee evolved the “tau hypothesis” which posited that the tangles themselves inhibit the proper firing of neurons. She found similar entanglements associated with Parkinson’s and with ALS, and later uncovered how misfolded proteins could spread from cell-to-cell through the central nervous system. By working to replicate the pathological evolution of tau proteins, Lee invented a protein roadmap to neurodegenerative disorders and an elucidation of common mechanisms of degeneration. Her research has opened up new avenues for identifying targets for drug discovery.
For Life Sciences: David Julius, University of California, San Francisco
For discovering molecules, cells, and mechanisms underlying pain sensation.
Description: Julius discovered cellular signaling mechanisms that produce pain sensation. Among other curiosities, he found that chili peppers and menthol trigger the same sensory receptors in the nervous system that ordinarily respond to heat and cold. While most pain functions as an early warning system, chronic pain is debilitating. But by identifying specific cellular targets for the chronic pain of IBS, arthritis, cancer, etc., his team is laying the foundation for a next generation of non-opioid, precision analgesics.
For Life Sciences: F. Ulrich Hartl, Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry; Arthur L. Horwich, Yale School of Medicine and Howard Hughes Medical Institute
For discovering functions of molecular chaperones in mediating protein folding and preventing protein aggregation.
Description: Collaborating between New Haven and Munich, Hartl and Horwich discovered the supporting machinery that enables proteins to properly fold into the precise shapes necessary to perform their myriad jobs within the cell. As we age, this machinery might slow down and could leave proteins messily clumping – “like the white of an egg congealing in a hot frying pan” – and setting the stage for cancer as well as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. Current research is investigating how to repair or support the cell’s folding machinery to inhibit protein clumping and preserve healthy functioning as we age.
For Life Sciences: Jeffrey M. Friedman, Rockefeller University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute
For the discovery of a new endocrine system through which adipose tissue signals the brain to regulate food intake.
Description: Since his 1994 discovery of the molecular pathway that regulates body fat, Friedman has been at the forefront of establishing the biological basis of obesity. His research elucidated the “leptin system” operating below the level of consciousness and “will power” that regulates when, what and how much we eat. Leptin therapy now treats patients with lipodystrophy, a rare but very severe form of diabetes. Leptin also has potential for a treating the subset of obese patients with low leptin levels as well as being used as part of new combinatorial therapies for patients with high leptin levels and who are resistant to leptin. The discovery of leptin has provided a new framework for understanding the pathogenesis of obesity by delineating the physiologic and neural mechanisms that regulate food intake and body weight.
For Mathematics: Alex Eskin, University of Chicago
For revolutionary discoveries in the dynamics and geometry of moduli spaces of Abelian differentials, including the proof of the “magic wand theorem” with Maryam Mirzakhani.
Description: Eskin teamed with famed Iranian mathematician and Fields Medalist, Maryam Mirzakhni, to prove a theorem about dynamics on moduli spaces. Their tour de force, published in 2013 after five years of labor, is a result with many consequences. One addresses the longstanding problem: If a beam of light from a point source bounces around a mirrored room, will it eventually reach the entire room – or will some parts remain forever dark? After translating the problem to a highly abstract multi-dimensional setting, the two mathematicians were able to show that for polygonal rooms with angles which are fractions of whole numbers, only a finite number of points would remain unlit. Mirzakhani passed away in 2017, at age 40, after fighting breast cancer for several years.
For Fundamental Physics: The Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration
For the first image of a supermassive black hole, taken by means of an Earth-sized alliance of telescopes
Description: Using eight sensitive radio telescopes strategically positioned around the world in Antarctica, Chile, Mexico, Hawaii, Arizona and Spain, a global collaboration of scientists at 60 institutions operating in 20 countries and regions captured an image of a black hole for the first time. By synchronizing each telescope using a network of atomic clocks, the team created a virtual telescope as large as the Earth, with a resolving power never before achieved from the surface of our planet. One of their first targets was the supermassive black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy—its mass equivalent to 6.5 billion suns. After painstakingly analysing the data with novel algorithms and techniques, the team produced an image of this galactic monster, silhouetted against hot gas swirling around the black hole, that matched expectations from Einstein's theory of gravity: a bright ring marking the point where light orbits the black hole, surrounding a dark region where light cannot escape the black hole's gravitational pull.