NIH Press Release
National Institute of
Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Friday, June 4, 1999
Contact: Ramie Leibnitz
(301) 402-1663

Dr. K. Frank Austen Receives Award for Asthma Research

K. Frank Austen, M.D., professor at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, has been selected for the Warren Alpert Foundation Prize, a prestigious award recognizing significant breakthroughs in the understanding and curing of major diseases. Dr. Austen will receive the award at a ceremony on June 4 in New York City.

"Dr. Austen is a brilliant physician/scientist whose remarkable work exemplifies the importance of long-term effort in research," comments Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). "As an NIAID grantee for more than 30 years, he has devoted much of his career to pursuing the molecular basis of asthma. Millions of asthma sufferers now reap the benefits of his research insights and perseverance."

Dr. Austen's dedication to understanding the biology of asthma made it possible for a new class of asthma medications, leukotriene inhibitors, to be developed. More than 3.5 million people worldwide benefit from four new versions of these drugs. "Not only are many people enjoying the results of this treatment -- the first truly novel asthma therapy to be introduced in 20 years -- but it represents a major scientific advance. It is the only treatment for this disease based on understanding the primary biology of asthma rather than being discovered empirically," states a colleague, Jeffrey Drazen, M.D.

During an asthma attack, the body's own immune cells produce specific chemicals, which Dr. Austen identified as leukotrienes. These slow-acting but extremely potent substances cause blood vessels to constrict and lung tissue to contract. When he first began work in the late 1950s on the then-mysterious substances, Dr. Austen realized such chemicals might play an important role in bronchial asthma. However, a greater understanding of both the biology and structure of leukotrienes was needed before drugs for asthma treatment could be developed.

Help came from collaborations with Dr. Drazen and Nobel Prize winner E. J. Corey, Ph.D., also of Harvard University. In 1977, Dr. Corey succeeded in producing the first synthetic leukotrienes. After animal tests indicated no safety problems, Dr. Austen and his two colleagues conducted the first human experiments on themselves, proving that leukotrienes caused the biological reactions of asthma.

With the mystery and making of leukotrienes solved, pharmaceutical companies then stepped in to develop leukotriene inhibitors to treat the disease. Dr. Austen's research elucidated a key pathway in the biochemistry of asthma; now agents that block leukotriene synthesis may provide relief for the 70 to 80 percent of asthmatics whose illness is due to leukotriene excess. Such drugs also have a potential for treating allergic rhinitis, bronchitis, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis and even rheumatoid arthritis.

"It is a great privilege and honor to be recognized by the Warren Alpert Foundation and Harvard Medical School," Dr. Austen said. "The drugs developed from our research are the first to treat the cause of the disease and not just the symptoms. After 40 years of work, it's very gratifying to know I have made a significant contribution to the management of this disease."

The Warren Alpert Foundation Prize rewards a researcher who benefits humanity by providing fundamental understanding or definitive treatment of disease. Prize recipients are selected from the foremost scientific and medical professionals throughout the world and are presented with a $100,000 award at the Foundation's annual luncheon.

NIAID is a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIAID conducts and supports research to prevent, diagnose and treat illnesses such as HIV disease and other sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis, malaria, asthma and allergies. NIH is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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