As one of the premier biomedical scientists of the last five decades, he is renowned for the breadth and beauty of his discoveries in virology, immunology, and cancer; for his academic leadership; for his mentorship of prominent scientists; and for his influence as a public advocate for science
The 2021 Lasker~Koshland Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science honors David Baltimore (California Institute of Technology), one of the premier biomedical scientists of the last five decades, who is renowned for the breadth and beauty of his discoveries in virology, immunology, and cancer. He has provided visionary academic leadership at multiple institutions and has mentored trainees who have later become prominent scientists in their fields. Since the beginning of his career, he has worked at the interface of policy and biological research, advocating for science and for ethical conduct. His statesmanship has influenced numerous areas of public interest.
As an 83-year-old man, I look back on my long career in science and feel a deep appreciation that I was introduced to the joys of scientific investigation when I was a high school teenager. That came during a summer-long stint at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, where I was mentored by three great mouse geneticists who introduced me to research and to the challenge of understanding the activities of a creature like the mouse. That “me” was a nerdy kid who sensed that dedicating his life to research might just be the contribution to society that would justify taking up space on an increasingly crowded planet. But first I needed to be educated, to learn how the world works. I put that challenge to Swarthmore College and it responded magnificently. In addition to giving me the broad education that prepared me for the many roles of a scientist—investigator, teacher, mentor, administrator, policy wonk, citizen—Swarthmore also used a form of education, learning in small seminars, that provided a forum for grappling with the new perspectives opening in biology.
In the late 1950’s, when I was in college, it had been only a few years since Watson and Crick had changed the whole trajectory of biological research by elucidating the structure of DNA. Biology was now an informational science, but the faculty was trained in the older, mainly observational, aspects of biology. How could I, and a small band of likeminded Swarthmoreans, prepare ourselves for working in the ever-changing world of research that was opening in front of us? The seminars provided the venues, and we took matters into our own hands.
Later I made the fateful decision to start my career working on RNA of animal viruses. I began by examining these relatively simple creatures, which led to the study of cancer, and then built up to research into the adaptive immune system of the mouse. In this trajectory, I tested what could be learned by focusing on nucleic acid enzymology. What convinced me to take on working on the mouse, was the increasingly powerful technology that came from investigators itching to solve some burning questions of their own. In 1975 this resulted in recombinant DNA technology, and that was the apotheosis I had been waiting for. We already knew that the secret of the adaptive immune system was that it scrambled segments of DNA. It seemed evident that the recombinant DNA methods would allow us to answer the questions about how this occurred, and I set out to guide my laboratory in that direction. Thanks to willing post-docs, we did what it took to pivot the laboratory, then located in the MIT Center for Cancer Research, towards immunology. And thanks to two students, we narrowed the focus to a question about enzymology; about how the segments of DNA were put together. They found the RAG genes that encode the enzyme proteins that do the job. We went on to lay out the pathway that a cell takes as it matures from a committed B cell to a functional B cell. The key was transcription factors. The one we stayed with, NF-κB, has proved central to understanding inflammation.
It has been a great ride over the 65-plus years since I was at Jackson Lab. I am most grateful to the many trainees who have contributed to the ride and who deserve to share in this award. Science is a great force in society because, messy as the process is, it finds the truths that underlay the phenomenology of our experience. Nowhere is that more evident than in the history of molecular biology over the last seven decades, and it has been a blessing to be able to play a role in the unfolding story.