Harvard Geneticist Wins $3 Million Breakthrough Prize

He made a pivotal discovery about DNA damage and cell repair.


Stephen Elledge/Photo provided

Stephen Elledge, a geneticist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, is a 2017 recipient of the Breakthrough Prize.

The Breakthrough Prize, which has been called the “Oscar of science,” is given every year in recognition of excellent work in fundamental physics, life sciences, and mathematics. Elledge was awarded a $3 million life sciences prize for his contributions to biology, including discovering mechanisms of cell division, cell aging, protein breakdown, and cancer growth.

Elledge is known for discovering the process by which cells sense DNA damage and start the self-repair process. He first noticed the phenomenon in yeast the late 1980s—certain enzyme levels jumped to help when the yeast’s DNA was damaged, or copied incorrectly—and guessed that humans and other mammals had the same fix-it alarm.

He eventually uncovered a “watchdog” protein-enzyme pair that alert a cell’s internal repair machinery when a mistake is found. If the cell can’t fix itself, it self-destructs, which helps slow the flow of damaged cells and prevent cancer. Elledge’s work showed why the watchdog and self-destruct sequence sometimes fails, and how that can affect cancer formation.

Most recently, Elledge has been developing a way to track every virus an individual has come into contact with over the course of his or her lifetime.

“Stephen’s work toward elucidating the way cells sense DNA damage and initiate self-repair is breathtaking in its scope and elegance,” Barbara McNeil, acting dean of Harvard Medical School, said in a statement. “His passion for discovery, his curiosity, and creativity embody the spirit of Harvard Medical School and the noblest traditions in scientific thought and inquiry. This award is a testament to that.”

Elledge will put his $3 million prize toward causes that promote science education.

“I’m truly honored to receive the Breakthrough Prize,” he said in the statement. “It is deeply gratifying to see the profound impact that basic research can have not only in promoting scientific knowledge but also in improving human health.”

This year’s Breakthrough Prize ceremony, the organization’s fifth, was broadcast on National Geographic and hosted by Morgan Freeman. Celebrities, including actors Jeremy Irons, Vin Diesel, and Dev Patel; athletes Alex Rodriguez and Kevin Durant; and CEOs Sundar Pichai, of Google, and Susan Wojcicki, of YouTube, presented the seven awards to nine laureates.