By Daniel Dunaief
One of them helped tap into a process bacteria use to fight off viruses to develop a gene editing technique that has the potential to fight diseases and improve agriculture. The other oversaw the development of a vaccine at a record-breaking pace to combat Covid-19.
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory honored both of them at its 17th annual Double Helix Medal Dinner at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC on Nov. 9.
The lab celebrated Dr. Jennifer Doudna, who won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020 for her co-discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing system and Pfizer Chairman and CEO Dr. Albert Bourla, who helped spearhead the development of an RNA-based vaccine.
The black-tie optional award dinner, hosted by television journalist Lesley Stahl, raised a record $5.8 million for research at the famed lab.
“We are giving hope to people, hope for science — and that’s something that gives us a lot of pride,” Dr. Bourla said in a statement.
Dr. Doudna, who is Professor of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Structural Biology at the University of California at Berkeley, was encouraged by the transformative nature of gene editing.
“When I think about new therapeutics that are only possible using CRISPR technology, I’m thinking about ways that we can not just treat a genetic disorder chronically, but can provide a one-and-done cure,” she said in a statement.
The awards dinner has raised over $50 million since its inception. Pfizer underwrote the entire event last week.
Attendees included previous award winners Drs. Marilyn and James Simons, who founded Renaissance Technologies, actress Susan Lucci, who starred on All My Children for 41 years, Representative Tom Suozzi (D-NY3) and his wife Helene, David Boies, Chairman and Managing Partner of the law firm Boies, Schiller Flexner, and Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, photographer and widow of tennis legend Arthur Ashe, among other business and philanthropic luminaries.
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory will incorporate the funds raised through the dinner into its operating budget, which supports integrated research and education in fields including neuroscience, artificial intelligence, quantitative biology, plant biology, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
The funding from the dinner helps CSHL scientists engage in high-risk, high-reward research that can lead to important discoveries, CSHL said in a statement.
“Rather than relying entirely on the grant system, [scientists] are given the freedom to further explore the future implications of their work,” CSHL added.
Philanthropy also helps CSHL expand its Meetings & Courses program. The operating budget supports community engagement and environmental stewardship on Long Island.
Senior leadership at the lab chooses the honorees each year.
This year’s dinner surpassed the $5 million raised last year, which honored baseball Hall-of-Farmer Reggie Jackson, as well as Leonard Schleifer and George Yancopoulos, the founders of Regeneron, the pharmaceutical company that provided life-saving antibody treatment for Covid-19.
Other previous honorees included actor Michael J. Fox, basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, actor and science educator Alan Alda, and newscasters Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric.
The chairs of the Double Helix medal dinner included Jamie Nicholls and O. Francis Biondi, Barbara Amonson and Vincent Della Pietra, Drs. Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra and Stephen Della Pietra, Mr. and Mrs. John Desmarais, Elizabeth McCaul and Francis Ingrassia, Mr. and Mrs. Jeffrey Kelter, Dr. and Mrs. Tomislav Kundic, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Lindsay, Ivana Stolnik-Lourie and Dr. Robert Lourie, Dr. and Mrs. Howard Morgan, and Marilyn and James Simons.