With $3M Breakthrough Prize in life sciences, tech titans want to turn scientists into superheroes

If you’re like most Americans, you’re probably familiar with the actors up for an Oscar this weekend, the athletes who competed in the Super Bowl or even (sadly) the latest stars of reality television.  But what about the scientists behind the flu shot keeping you healthy this winter? Or the people responsible for the pain medication you take for your backache?

If a group of Silicon Valley luminaries have their way, scientists working on some of the world’s most intractable diseases will be like superheroes for future generations.  On Wednesday, Apple (s AAPL) Chairman Art Levinson, Google (s GOOG) co-founder Sergey Brin, 23andMe co-founder (and wife of Brin) Anne Wojcicki, Facebook (s FB) CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Zuckerberg’s wife Priscilla Chan and investor Yuri Milner announced a new Breakthrough Prize recognizing achievement in life sciences research. Administered through a new Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation, the prize will be awarded to five individuals or teams annually but this year 11 inaugural recipients received $3 million each.

Speaking at a presentation event Wednesday at the University of California, San Francisco Wojcicki said that given her father’s position as a Stanford University physicist she grew up appreciating the work of scientists, but that society generally tends to overlook their contributions.

“To me it always seemed like it was a real tragedy -– we all go to the doctor, we’ve all taken Tylenol and Advil and some of us have been sicker and have had to take other medications,” she said.  “But do you ever think about who actually invented that? Does anyone know the names of those people?”

Zuckerberg emphasized that the while the prize was meant to recognize researchers at the top of their fields, it’s also intended to inspire future scientists.

“I think that our society needs more heroes who are scientists and researchers and engineers. You guys are doing all of the amazing work and the thing that we can do from the sidelines is build institutions that celebrate and reward and recognize all of the real work,” he said. “The things that we talk about in the media and the things the market rewards has a big influence on what the next generation of people growing up will choose to do and I think it’s really important that a lot of the smartest people go and choose to solve these problems and go into these lines of work.”

To ensure that the ones making the top contributions are the ones deciding who gets recognition, winners will help select future recipients of the prize. Also, anyone can nominate a candidate online and there are no age restrictions.

Here are the first 11 winners (language from the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation):

Cornelia I. Bargmann
Torsten N. Wiesel Professor and Head of the Lulu and Anthony Wang Laboratory of Neural Circuits and
Behavior at the Rockefeller University. Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.

For the genetics of neural circuits and behavior, and synaptic guidepost molecules.

David Botstein
Director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics and the Anthony B. Evnin Professor of
Genomics at Princeton University.

For linkage mapping of Mendelian disease in humans using DNA polymorphisms.

Lewis C. Cantley
Margaret and Herman Sokol Professor and Director of the Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medical
College and New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

For the discovery of PI 3-Kinase and its role in cancer metabolism.

Hans Clevers
Professor of Molecular Genetics at Hubrecht Institute.

For describing the role of Wnt signaling in tissue stem cells and cancer.

Titia de Lange
Leon Hess Professor, Head of the Laboratory of Cell Biology and Genetics, and Director of the Anderson
Center for Cancer Research at the Rockefeller University.

For research on telomeres, illuminating how they protect chromosome ends and their role in genome
instability in cancer.

Napoleone Ferrara
Distinguished Professor of Pathology and Senior Deputy Director for Basic Sciences at Moores Cancer
Center at the University of California, San Diego.

For discoveries in the mechanisms of angiogenesis that led to therapies for cancer and eye diseases.

Eric S. Lander
President and Founding Director of the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. Professor of
Biology at MIT. Professor of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School.

For the discovery of general principles for identifying human disease genes, and enabling their
application to medicine through the creation and analysis of genetic, physical and sequence maps of the
human genome.

Charles L. Sawyers
Chair, Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Howard
Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.

For cancer genes and targeted therapy.

Bert Vogelstein
Director of the Ludwig Center and Clayton Professor of Oncology and Pathology at the Johns Hopkins
Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center. Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.

For cancer genomics and tumor suppressor genes.

Robert A. Weinberg
Daniel K. Ludwig Professor for Cancer Research at MIT and Director of the MIT/Ludwig Center for
Molecular Oncology. Member, Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.

For characterization of human cancer genes.

Shinya Yamanaka
Director of Center for iPS Cell Research and Application, Kyoto University
Senior Investigator, Gladstone Institutes, San Francisco

For induced pluripotent stem cells.