Tony Hunter (Salk Institute), Joseph Schlessinger (Yale University) and Charles L. Sawyers (Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center) are honored for the discovery of tyrosine phosphorylation of proteins as a major signal transduction mechanism, which has led to a detailed understanding of cellular growth control and the development of a new class of successful cancer drugs.
Cells sense the environment through proteins that are located on their surface. One major class of these proteins are known as tyrosine kinase receptors, which govern fundamental cellular processes such as proliferation, migration, metabolism, differentiation and survival, as well as those that regulate intercellular communication during development. Many human cancers are driven by mutations in tyrosine kinase receptors, and so these proteins and the molecules that are activated by them inside the cells have become important targets for therapeutic intervention. Today, it is estimated that about a third of pharmaceutical research and development effort goes into targeting tyrosine kinase receptors and their signaling pathways for cancer therapies.
The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Biomedicine recognizes the contributions of three eminent scientists who have taken the field all the way from initial basic discoveries to clinical applications that save lives. Tony Hunter discovered a new type of enzyme that phosphorylates tyrosine residues in proteins, which opened the field. Joseph Schlessinger discovered the principle through which these receptors function. Charles Sawyers discovered how drug candidates interfere with these pathways, which led to the clinical translation of these basic concepts into the treatment of cancer.