A Japanese scientist who discovered an obscure cholesterol-fighting fungus will be awarded "America's Nobel" for his contribution to today's blockbuster statin drugs.
Akira Endo, 74, will receive the Lasker Award and its $300,000 prize on Sept. 25 in New York. Some 75 Lasker awardees have gone on to win Nobels.
In 1973, after sifting through 6,000 fungi, Endo hit upon a purified form of Penicillium citrinum as a fungus that blocked reductase, an enzyme that produces cholesterol. Endo and a colleague started giving it to animals and humans, ultimately finding that it reduced LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, by 27 percent, according to a press release. Drug giants including Merck (which in the 1970s had an agreement with Sankyo, the Japanese company Endo was working for), Pfizer and others went on to produce statins, which are now the world's second-most commonly prescribed medicines after cancer drugs, according to IMS Health. Pfizer's Lipitor is the top-selling statin in the U.S., with sales last year of $13.5 billion; statins overall were a $33.7 billion industry in 2007, IMS says.
Despite their popularity, statins have been criticized (and are now being studied) for side effects, including muscle weakness, pain, fatigue, peripheral neuropathy, memory and mood problems. And while they have been shown to reduce the risk of heart attack, the drugs haven't been proven to prolong life or to improve its quality, the New York Times noted in a recent review of medical studies.
"This is something the jury takes very seriously," said Lasker Foundation President Maria Freire. She referred further questions to jury chair Joseph Goldstein, who did not immediately return calls or emails. Neither Endo, now director of Biopharm Research Laboratories in Tokyo, nor his daughter, who is helping to coordinate his media interviews, immediately responded to e-mails seeking comment.
This year's other awardees include Stanley Falkow for his research on antibiotic resistance, and three scientists who discovered tiny genetic molecules called microRNAs in animals and plants. The scientists are Victor Ambros and Gary Ruvkun of the U.S. and David Baulcombe of Great Britain.
A 2006 profile of Endo noted that he briefly took Mevacor, a Merck statin produced with a fungal byproduct close to the one he discovered. But Endo stopped taking it, and when a doctor found he still had elevated LDL, he decreased his levels by exercising, he told the Wall Street Journal.
When asked why, he gave the Journal a cryptic answer in the form of a Japanese proverb: "The indigo dyer wears white trousers."
(Image courtesy of Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation)