The Breakthrough Prize Foundation and its founding sponsors, Sergey Brin, Co-Founder of Google, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook and his wife Priscilla Chan, Yuri Milner, founder of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, and his wife Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki, CEO of 23andMe, announced the winners of the 10th annual Breakthrough Prizes, awarding a total of $15.75 million to an esteemed group of laureates and early-career scientists.
- Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences was awarded to Shankar Balasubramanian, David Klenerman and Pascal Mayer, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman and Jeffery W. Kelly.
- Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics was awarded to Takuro Mochizuki.
- Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics was awarded to Hidetoshi Katori
- Jun Ye. Six New Horizons Prizes were awarded for Early-Career Achievements in Physics and Math.
- Three Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prizes were awarded to Women Mathematicians for Early-Career Achievements.
The scientific and medical response to Covid-19 has been unprecedented, and two of this year’s prizes are for breakthroughs that played a significant role in that response. The innovative vaccines developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna that have proven effective against the virus rely on decades of work by Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman. Convinced of the promise of mRNA therapies despite widespread skepticism, they created a technology that is not only vital in the fight against the coronavirus today, but holds vast promise for future vaccines and treatments for a wide range of diseases including HIV, cancer, autoimmune and genetic diseases.
Meanwhile, the almost immediate identification and characterization of the virus, rapid development of vaccines, and real-time monitoring of new genetic variants would have been impossible without the next generation sequencing technologies invented by Shankar Balasubramanian, David Klenerman and Pascal Mayer. Before their inventions, re-sequencing a full human genome could take many months and cost millions of dollars; today, it can be done within a day at the cost of around $600. This resulted in a revolution in biology, enabling the revelation of unsuspected genetic diversity with major implications from cell and microbiome biology to ecology, forensics and personalized medicine.
The struggle against neurodegenerative diseases is an ever-present emergency. Jeffery W. Kelly has made a difference in the lives of people suffering from amyloid diseases that affect the heart and nervous system. He showed the mechanism by which a protein, transthyretin, unravels and agglomerates into clusters that kill cells, tissues and ultimately patients. He then conceived a molecular approach to stabilizing the protein, and after he synthesized a thousand candidate molecules, one of the designed molecules had the right structure to achieve this stabilization. He then helped develop it into an effective drug, named tafamidis, that significantly slows the progression of these diseases. In the process, he provided evidence for the notion that protein aggregation causes neurodegeneration, which has relevance for other neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s disease.
Hidetoshi Katori and Jun Ye, working independently, have improved the precision of time measurement by 3 orders of magnitude. Their techniques – tabletop in scale – for using lasers to trap, cool and probe atoms, produce quantum clocks so accurate that they would lose less than a second if operated for 15 billion years. These optical lattice clocks have potential technological applications from quantum computing to using the effects of Einstein’s relativity for seismology; and in fundamental research they can be used to check theories like relativity, as well as to hunt for gravitational waves and new physics such as dark matter.
While experimentalists probe the physical world with ever-increasing precision, mathematicians explore the frontiers of mindbending abstract spaces. Takuro Mochizuki works at the interface of algebraic geometry – where solutions to systems of equations appear as geometric objects – and differential geometry – where smooth surfaces unfold in multiple complex dimensions. Mochizuki overcame immense technical and conceptual challenges to extend the boundaries of knowledge deep into new terrain, extending the understanding of objects called holonomic D-modules to include varieties with singularities – points where the equations under study no longer make sense. In the process, he has given a complete foundation to the field, solving all basic long-standing conjectures.
Beyond the main prizes, six New Horizons Prizes, each of $100,000, were distributed between 13 early-career scientists and mathematicians who have already made a substantial impact on their fields. In addition, three Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prizes were awarded to early-career women mathematicians.
Including the New Horizons and New Frontiers prizes for early-career achievements, a total of $15.75 million is conferred this year, bringing the total amount awarded to pioneering scientists and mathematicians throughout the decade of the Prize’s existence to $276.5 million.