U.S. doctors and researchers honored at Mahidol Awards

It was an all-American night at the old Grand Palace in Bangkok. A team of American researchers from the Human Genome Project and the American developers of the Hib influenza vaccine all received Mahidol Awards, the most prestigious Asian prize for medicine and public health, from HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn during a lavish ceremony attended by the Prime Minister, diplomats and members of the medical community.

Although many Americans have received the Mahidol Award in its 26-year history, this was one of the rare years when all the award winners were from the United States. The annual Mahidol Awards are considered the highest prizes in the fields of medicine and public health save for the Nobel Prize. Several Mahidol Award winners later went on to receive Nobel Prizes for their work.

Princess Sirindhorn presided over the ceremony representing her brother HM King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun. The award is named after their grandfather, Prince Mahidol of Songkhla who is regarded as the father of modern Thai medicine. Prince Mahidol graduated from Harvard with degrees in medicine and public health, and the links and relationships between the Thai and United States medical communities have always been strong.

The Princess conferred the award for the field of medicine on National Human Genome Research Institute Director Dr. Eric Green who represented the team of doctors that worked on the Human Genome Project, which ran from 1990 through 2003. The main mission of the project was to decipher human genetic codes. The project was a collaborative effort between 20 institutes in six countries. The genetic codes they collected produced a mega biological database for use by scientists around the world.

“The information provided by the Human Genome Project has helped make significant progress in medical science, a branch of science essential to the comprehension of how diseases occur,” the Prince Mahidol Foundation said when selecting the project for the award. “It has changed the medical paradigm, shifting focus on diagnosis and treatment to the investigation of the causes and identification of the related genetic risks of diseases … a benefit to all mankind.”

The Princess then presented the award for public health to four researchers: Prof. Porter W. Anderson, Jr., Dr. John B. Robbins, Dr. Rachel Schneerson and Prof. Mathuram Santosham. The four have been conducting research since 1970 into Haemophilus influenza type b (Hib). Hib is one of the core causes of meningitis, particularly in children under the age of five. The disease has a high mortality rate and if not fatal, could result in permanent disabilities.

Their research led to an understanding of the mechanism by which Hib works, which then allowed them to participate in the development of a vaccine to prevent Hib.

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