Sanford Lorraine Cross Award finalists reflect on experience

Three accomplished individuals up for one award, million dollar prize

Sanford Lorraine Cross Award finalists reflect on experience

The three distinguished individuals named the 2020 Sanford Lorraine Cross Award nominees beam with gratitude when they think about the journey through this award process.

Dr. Mark Denison, Dr. Michael Welsh and Dr. Carl June are three finalists for the second Sanford Lorraine Cross Award. One of them will be awarded $1 million for their work in medicine, science and innovation.

Learn: Sanford Lorraine Cross Award: Who are the 2020 nominees?

When asked about what they’ve enjoyed most, there was a common denominator. They were honored to be in the company of two other accomplished scientists and physicians who are recognized for their research and development.

The previously scheduled December 2020 event was postponed to April 2021, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Once the nominees arrive in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, they each meet with the Sanford International Board which then deliberates, votes and determines the winner before he is announced April 13.

Read: Why the Lorraine Cross Award is important to Sanford

Mark Denison, infectious disease

Mark Denison, M.D., is the director of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, principal investigator of the Denison Lab and professor of Pediatrics and Pathology at Vanderbilt University.

2020 will be known as the year of the coronavirus. But for Dr. Mark Denison, it’s been his focus for more than 30 years. Dr. Denison was the first to discover the virus’ ability to “proofread” itself for mutations, a groundbreaking revelation for the field and his driving force to research antiviral treatments that could defeat it. Thanks to Dr. Denison, we now have remdesivir, the only FDA-approved treatment for coronavirus. For his tenacity and willingness to think outside the box for the greater good, he’s nominated for the Sanford Lorraine Cross Award.

“What I wanted (the Sanford International Board) to know is that we need to continue to pursue and support fundamental research, particularly in areas that may not seem to us on first blush to be the most important if there is a potential rationale that could have long-term future implications,” Denison explained.

He explained the coronavirus pandemic as a game of chess with some moves to be made.

“We can’t be afraid of that but we need to continue to be committed to moving forward,” he added. “The virus doesn’t observe the kinds of boundaries of last year versus this year. So, we need to continue to support that commitment at our health institutions and in our science that we do.”

Roughly seven years of work led to his development of remdesivir, a drug that can be used immediately in humans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“But the game isn’t over yet,” he said. “We are currently in it. We are in the middle of it. We’re still seeing the severity of disease. We’re still seeing variants are rising. We’re still seeing the need for antivirals and drugs to treat people because they’re still going to be hospitalized and hospitals still may be overwhelmed. On a day like this to celebrate science and to celebrate accomplishments, I don’t like to be a downer, but I think it’s about acknowledging the truth of the situations and the need to continue to support it and continue to push it forward.”

Dr. Denison said the postponed Sanford Lorraine Cross Award gave him pause and more time to reflect.

“As a scientist, you’re always forward looking. What’s the next question? What’s the next thing we have to address? How do we move from here? So, to actually sit back, say, ‘How did I get here and how did we get here? How did my team get here? What parts did I contribute to that? I support people in the way that they should be supported. What should I have done or what could I have done?'” he said. “I think the external recognition of that has also been very important. I like to think it’s been as, or more important, for my long history of trainees than it has for me.”

Michael Welsh, cystic fibrosis

Michael Welsh, M.D., is an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, director of Pappajohn Biomedical Institute and professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine.

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic disease that affects 70,000 people worldwide. But for years, little was known about it. Dr. Michael Welsh pioneered the field of CF by identifying how it disrupts the lungs. He went on to study four kinds of genetic mutation that cause the disease and prove they can be treated, developing a roadmap that guided drug creation for life-saving therapies for 90% of patients. For his compassion and dedication to a cure, he’s nominated for the Sanford Lorraine Cross Award.

He said this award is really highlighting the need to continue investing in research and development.

“We have the benefits in this country, and around the world, from biomedical research which has changed so much in our lives. We’re particularly aware of that now through this pandemic and with the rapid development of effective vaccines,” he explained. “But sometimes we forget about all the work that goes into it.”

He credits those who work every day, devoting their lives to research from students to trainees and research assistants.

“When we think about a new medicine or we think about a new way to improve health, this award shines light on that,” Dr. Welsh said.

“It’s really an important light to shine because we’re not going to keep going forward unless we invest in this. This award helps with that.”

Dr. Welsh’s development of therapy treatment has led to a decrease in hospitalizations, lung transplants and increased fertility and life expectancy for thousands of patients diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.

“It’s just enormously gratifying to have been able to make a contribution,” Dr. Welsh said. “If you pick up any medical textbook and look at the chapter on cystic fibrosis, the first sentence is almost always, ‘Cystic fibrosis is a lethal genetic disease.’ It doesn’t have to be lethal anymore.”

Carl June, acute lymphoblastic leukemia

Carl June, M.D. is the director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies with the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

By taking a patient’s T-cells and engineering them into CAR T-cells that can seek out and kill cancer, he’s given hope to countless patients. And today, his FDA-approved drug KYMRIAH can help certain patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia have a fighting chance at remission and recovery. For this innovation and compassionate persistence, he’s nominated for the Sanford Lorraine Cross Award.

His team can witness the effects of CAR T-cells on patients within weeks.

“I’ve been in this privileged position to have either the patients come up and thank me or their parents,” Dr. June explained. “It’s an unbelievable experience and the most rewarding thing.”

He said this nomination keeps him motivated. In fact, this year, his team will be able to treat kids with leukemia in Costa Rica — the first to be treated with CAR T-cells in South or Central America. Additionally, he’s involved in India with 60,000 cases of leukemia in children and other adults with varying cancers.

“It has helped me enter a new stage — which is where I can help spread the importance of science and medical research. I think a very it’s a unique and privileged position. Most scientists don’t even ever see the benefits of what they do. This is a great opportunity.”

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Posted In Awards & Recognition, Lorraine Cross, Research