Virginia Man-Yee Lee, Ph.D., a neuropathologist at the University of Pennsylvania, is the 2020 recipient of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for her lifetime work in understanding how misfolded proteins can spread through cells, leading to the progression of diseases like Alzheimer’s, frontotemporal degeneration (FTD), Parkinson’s, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), otherwise known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
Dr. Lee’s work led to the discovery of the link between accumulations of the protein TDP-43 in the brain to the development of FTD and ALS, and she determined that different forms of alpha-synuclein, in different cell types, underlie Parkinson’s disease and multiple system atrophy (MSA).
“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,” the prized description noted. ”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.”
This research has provided new avenues for identifying targets for drug discovery to develop better treatments.
Dr. Lee is director of the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She also is a founding member of AFTD’s Medical Advisory Council.
“This funding will help us as we continue to push for a greater understanding of these diseases that can ultimately help us find ways to help millions of these patients,” Dr. Lee told the University of Pennsylvania Almanac.
Other Breakthrough Prizes were awarded for achievements in physics and mathematics. Laureates receive $3 million each in prize money. A total of $21.6 million will be awarded for 2020 Breakthrough Prizes.
All of the prizes will be formally presented at the “Oscars of Science,” a televised ceremony on November 3, 2019, in Mountain View, California. The event is designed to celebrate recipients’ achievements and inspire the next generation of scientists.
The Breakthrough Prizes Foundation honors important, primarily recent, achievements in the categories of Fundamental Physics, Life Sciences and Mathematics. The prizes are sponsored by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Pony Ma, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki. Committees of previous laureates choose the winners from candidates nominated in a process that’s online and open to the public.