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W.Va. native wins $3 million Breakthrough Prize

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A West Virginia native is among 11 scientists picked for a new $3 million award.

Cancer researcher Dr. Lewis Cantley, originally of Big Chimney and a graduate of Herbert Hoover High School, is an inaugural winner of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

Cantley, who graduated in 1971 from West Virginia Wesleyan College, is credited with discovering a family of enzymes fundamental to understanding cancer. He discovered the signaling pathway phosphoinositide 3-kinase, which explains the growth of a cell and has implications in cancer, according to a statement.

Cantley is the director of the Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medical College and New York Presbyterian.

Cantley earned his Ph.D. in biophysical chemistry at Cornell University in 1975. He has taught at both Harvard University and Tufts University.

The prize, funded by Apple chairman Art Levinson, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and others, is worth more than the Nobel Prize and is the world's richest award for life sciences research.

The award aims to recognize excellence in research aimed to cure intractable diseases and extend human life.

Cantley said he was shocked when he learned about the award.

When Levinson, a friend of Cantley, called him, Cantley thought it was to ask him to consult with a company Levinson works with. Instead, he learned he had won the $3 million award.

"A typical prize is in the range of $50,000 to $100,000 and the Nobel Prize is $1 million," he said. "I was shocked."

Cantley has not yet decided how to spend the money, he said.

The Breakthrough Prize board wanted the high-profile prize to provide an incentive for young people to consider careers in the science field. Society rewards celebrities and athletes more than scientists, who can make discoveries that positively affect peoples' lives, Cantley said.

"They want to make this a very visible prize, to grab attention," he said.

Cantley grew up in the 1960s, when the United States was racing to get to the moon.

During that time, Cantley said, it was common for the best and brightest students of his generation to pursue careers in science.

Since then, there's been a shift in interest from the science field to Wall Street, he said. 

Cantley agrees with the notion of placing more attention and fanfare on science careers in the hopes of attracting young people to the field. Whether the award serves that purpose remains to be seen, he said.

As a Breakthrough Prize winner, Cantley and the others will serve on the committee that chooses future award recipients.

The foundation plans to grant five awards annually.

Cantley visits West Virginia at least once a year, he said.

His sister, Linda Cantley, lives in Charleston and his mother, Claryce Cantley, lives in Big Chimney.

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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