Transcript of speech from the 2011 Vilcek Prize Awards Dinner
Maria Freire, President, The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation

Thank you, Jan, for that generous introduction.  It wonderful to be here tonight reunited with old friends and, I hope, having made some new ones tonight. 

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.

When Jan and Marica graciously asked me to introduce two of this year’s winners, I accepted with great pride and with humility – what a task! 

Unexpectedly, I found myself considering my own immigrant journey and speaking with others who had left their homelands for this country – and, in doing so, appreciating profoundly the history of these two remarkable individuals, Marica and Jan, and the extraordinary way in which they celebrate second chances, opportunity and freedom. 

As immigrants, it is natural to be indebted to the country that has embraced us, nurtured our creative spirit and given us the opportunity to flourish – things often denied to us either by political turmoil, discrimination, or because the option to pursue our calling was simply not available.  Indeed, as immigrants, we are acutely aware that this country is “the land of the free” and we celebrate this fact with our commitment to see it thrive and prosper.

It is less usual to flip the logic, to shift the frame and celebrate the immigrant men and women who came to this “land of the free” and helped make it “home of the brave.” 

In celebrating the achievement of immigrants, the Vilcek Awards shed a light on the contributions of awe-inspiring scientists and dazzling artists.  Each story is different and as varied as the protagonists, and yet, remarkably, the experiences inevitably lead to a shared sense of appreciation and wonder of the opportunities given to us and that we hungrily embrace. 

Thank you, Jan and Marica, for your leadership and generous support that allows us to celebrate recipients of the remarkable Vilcek Award – those past, present and those yet to come.

As we honor these foreign-born individuals who have made outstanding contributions to biomedical science, we must remind ourselves and the general public that their research was possible through this country’s commitment to medical research.  And, that it is because of this support that their discoveries provide amazing possibilities to expand our understanding of biology and push the frontiers of medicine for the benefit of mankind. 

Today, more than ever, with competing priorities in times of economic uncertainty, we must continue to champion investment in basic and clinical research and to demand enlightened public policy that strongly supports exceptional education at all levels. 

As we know, some of the most critical advances in biomedical research do not begin with a specific end in mind.  Rather, they are the result of asking very basic, fundamental questions and being open to quite unexpected answers.  Tonight we honor two scientists who embody this experience by having made awe-inspiring contributions to our understanding of fundamental principles in biology, knowledge that charts a path to tackle human disease.

Dr. Titia de Lange, the Leon Hess Professor at the Rockefeller University, receives the Vilcek Award in Biomedical Science in recognition of her groundbreaking research on mechanisms that help maintain genome stability and protect cells from becoming cancerous.   

Here is the simple and profound question that puzzled Titia – one that has stumped scientists for years: Our DNA, which is packed into chromosomes, is linear.  This means it has exposed ends.  So, why don’t these ends simply unravel or fuse together?  How is it that the repair mechanism of the cell, ever ready to mend broken DNA, does not confuse the ends of our DNA for breaks in the double helix? 

Is it that the ends have something akin to an “Aiglet” – you know, the snug plastic caps at the end of shoelaces? 

Or, perhaps, is it that the DNA cleverly winds around and ties itself into a hefty knot? 

Moreover, how do these ends know when they need to unwind the double helix and allow cells to replicate our genetic information?

Titia answers in one word: TELOMERES – clever repetitive strands of DNA, covered with specific proteins, which sit at the end of our chromosomes. 

With wonder, she describes telomeres as marvels of engineering – smart and beautiful.   Long telomeres are healthy telomeres.  And, with grace and wit, she tells us of her discovery of a group of proteins that sit upon the telomeres to protect them from erosion and delay the natural process by which the telomeres eventually whittle away. 

Titia’s studies have also informed us on what happens when telomeres are shortened or when their numbers are depleted, shedding a light on the processes that can lead to cancer.  You see, unlike our normal cells, cancer cells have a way of preventing their telomeres from shortening.  This allows cancer cells to continue to grow and thrive.  Because of her work we have a beachhead upon which we can develop clinical interventions to stop the growth of malignant cells.

Telomeres have been Titia’s overriding passion, her hobby, her driver.  Her journey from the Netherlands to London to San Francisco to New York speaks of courage and determination.  Those of us who have the pleasure to know her can attest to her contagious sense of humor and flawless sense of style – as in art, science requires great taste.  Titia has impeccable taste. 

It can be as frightening as it is exhilarating and enriching to cross boundaries, to meet different people, to taste foreign spices and discover previously unknown sights. 

Tonight’s recipient of the Vilcek Award for Creative Promise in biomedical science, Dr. Yibin Kang, can tell you that you don’t need to cross borders to experience dramatic change.

Yibin was 15, a junior in high school, when he was selected to attend a special class in chemistry at a university in Beijing.  Encouraged by his father, he left his village in the Fujian Province and traveled by train for 3 days and two nights, with no seat.  This was February 1989. 

On April 15, barely two months after his arrival, the protests in Tiananmen Square started.  Incommunicado and desperate to get word to his family, he finally was allowed a one-word telegram.  He chose to say simply: SAFE. 

Given this history, adjusting to the move from China to the US was relatively trivial and Yibin is now an Associate Professor at Princeton University. 

His guiding light, his passion, is to use molecular biology to make a difference in human care. 

He has decided to focus on cancer and, specifically, on understanding the molecular factors that drive cancer metastasis. His premise is that understanding the mysteries of metastasis may allow us to find a cure.

Yibin, too, asked a seemingly simple question: Advances in our studies of the human genome allow us to identify those breast cancer patients who are at high risk of relapse and metastasis.  But having done so, why do some of these patients fare worse than others?  

By developing a sophisticated computer-based method, Yibin has identified a small, troublesome region in chromosome number 8 of patients who succumb early to metastasis.  He noticed that in this region the gene processes were frequently flawed and that a protein known to help the progression and development cancer was produced at abnormally high levels, making the tumors of these patients more resistant to treatment.  Importantly, he observed that these tumors were also more adhesive to the blood vessels in the organs to which the spread.

These studies provided the basis for the concept that metastasis is enhanced through cross-talks between the tumor and the surrounding cells.  To test this, Yibin and his colleagues have now developed biological tools that will allow them to visualize this conversation.  If successful, Yibin will have created a pathway toward the development of therapeutic agents that may potentially stop the spread of cancer.

When he left his home at 15, Yibin’s mother told him, with pride and sorrow, knowing she may not see him again: “You belong to the country now.”   With these contributions and many more to come, Yibin has proven his mother right, except he not only belongs to the country - he belongs to the world.

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in a round of applause for these two remarkable scientists!

We shall now proceed with conferring the awards, first to Dr. Yibin Kang and then to Dr. Titia de Lange. May I ask Yibin Kang, Marica and Jan Vilcek to please come to the podium?

Maria C. Freire, President of The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, is a biomedical scientist and expert in technology commercialization. A Fulbright Fellowship took her out of the lab and into Congress, where she realized the "importance of permeating science through all of society." Today, as head of one of the most prestigious private foundations, she oversees programs that support biomedical research dedicated to conquering disease, improving human health, and extending life.

Born in Lima, Peru, Dr. Freire earned her BS from the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in Lima, and her PhD in Biophysics from the University of Virginia. From 2001 to 2007, she was President and CEO of the Global Alliance of TB Drug Development. She also served as Director of the Office of Technology Transfer at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and established and led the Office of Technology Development at the University of Maryland at Baltimore and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. For her work in the public interest, she has received the DHHS Secretary's Award for Distinguished Service, the 1999 Arthur S. Flemming Award, and the 2002 Bayh-Dole Award.

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