U.S. agency and Harvard researchers win Mahidol Awards

An all-American lineup will be honored by Thailand in January as the Prince Mahidol Foundation last week named The Human Genome Project of the United States National Institute of Health, and four American researchers who helped develop a vaccine that protects children against meningitis, as the winners of its annual awards for medical research and public health.

The Mahidol Awards are the most prestigious health awards in the world after the Nobel Prize, and several Mahidol Award recipients later went on to win Nobel Prizes. The awards are named after Prince Mahidol of Songkhla, a Harvard educated physician regarded as the father of Thai medicine, and the grandfather of King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Prince Mahidol’s son, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, established the awards in 1992.

The Human Genome Project, which operated under the National Institute of Health and was founded in 1990, was honored for its work and its effects upon the field of medicine. Its mission was to map the genetic codes that make up human DNA – the blueprint for our species. The project was declared “complete” in 2000 after mapping 92 percent of the components and structure of human DNA, but research continues to take place to map the remaining codes.

“These codes are the core elements that determine biological life. Knowledge of the human genome … facilitated the evolution of medicine in many aspects. The information provided by the project has helped make significant progress in medical science, a branch of science essential to the comprehension of how diseases occur. It has changed the medical paradigm,’’ the Mahidol Foundation said in announcing the award.

In the field of public health, the award will be given to four researchers whose work contributed to the creation of a vaccine for Haemophilus Influenza type B (Hib), which is a core cause of meningitis, especially in children under the age of five.

Two of the researchers, Professor Porter W. Anderson Jr. and Dr. David H. Smith are from Harvard University, and two are from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development – Dr. John B. Robbins and Dr. Rachel Schneerson.

“After the Hib conjugate vaccine was made available worldwide, the incidence of Hib disease and its mortality among young children has dropped as much as 95 – 99 percent. Millions of children have been saved from Hib disease. Few would have anticipated that by the year 2020, over 7 million lives would have been saved due to the use of the Hib vaccine,’’ the Prince Mahidol Foundation said.

The awards ceremony will take place in late January at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. It will be presided over by Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and attended by the Prime Minister and prominent members of the public health community in Thailand.