"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
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
"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
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.
Press releases, fact sheets and other NIAID-related materials are available
on the NIAID Web site at http://www.niaid.nih.gov.