Friedmann wins Japan Prize for gene therapy

Posted: January 30, 2015 at 1:42 am

Dr. Theodore Friedmann is a longtime faculty member at UC San Diego and a pioneer in gene therapy.

Dr. Theodore Friedmann, a pioneer in the booming field of gene therapy, has been named a 2015 winner of the prestigious Japan Prize.

A pediatrician-turned-researcher at UC San Diego, Friedmann is renowned for demonstrating in the lab that it is possible to correct a genetic defect by adding a functional gene to defective cells, a feat he and colleagues accomplished in 1968. Since then, Friedmann has been guiding the young science through controversies, ethical challenges and setbacks.

Friedmann shares the prize in "medical science and medicinal science" with Dr. Alain Fischer of the Necker Hospital in Paris, France. Fischer helped demonstrate gene therapy's clinical ability to treat a genetic immune deficiency that makes patients extremely vulnerable to infections.

Along with the recognition, Friedmann and Fischer will split a $416,600 award, a certificate and gold medal. There's also the prospect of future recognition: several Japan Prize winners have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

Friedmann is known not only as a scientist who demonstrated gene therapy is possible, but as a thinker who has dampened the waves of excessive exuberance and despondency that often accompanies the passage of research discoveries into therapies. He has also cautioned his fellow scientists to approach gene therapy with great caution.

In 1972, Friedmann co-authored an influential article in the journal Science, "Gene therapy for human genetic disease?" proposing a program of research advancement and safety precautions with an eye to eventual therapy. In February, 2010, he coauthored an article in Science about the potential use of performance-enhancing "gene doping" in sports.

Those who didn't heed Friedmann's warnings ran into trouble. For example, in 1999 gene therapy patient Jesse Gelsinger, 18, died due to an immune reaction. Gelsinger had a mild form of a genetically caused liver disease, controlled with drugs and diet. He was enrolled to test a treatment to be used in babies with a fatal form of the disease. But Gelsinger himself had little to gain.

A mountain of bad publicity threatened to sink the field. The New York Times wrote about "The Biotech Death of Jesse Gelsinger." As a consequence, other new forms of therapy, such as stem cell treatments, have progressed more slowly to avoid a repeat.

The Gelsinger disaster has receded into the background, as safer forms of gene therapy edge closer to becoming an accepted part of medicine. Forms of gene therapy are now being tested in clinical trials to treat such different diseases as cancer, sickle cell anemia and HIV, with impressive results.

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Friedmann wins Japan Prize for gene therapy

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