updated 9/17/2007 8:56:11 AM ET 2007-09-17T12:56:11

Two researchers who opened up the field of heart-valve replacement and a scientist who discovered a type of cell that plays a key role in the immune system have won prestigious medical prizes.

The $150,000 Albert Lasker Medical Research Awards will be presented Sept. 28 in New York by the Albert & Mary Lasker Foundation.

Dr. Albert Starr of the Providence Health System in Portland, Ore., and Dr. Alain Carpentier of the Georges Pompidou European Hospital in Paris will share the clinical research prize for developing replacement heart valves. More than 300,000 people a year worldwide get heart valves replaced, and it’s the second most common heart surgery in the United States, the foundation said.

In the 1950s, Starr and the late engineer Lowell Edwards defied conventional wisdom by developing an artificial heart valve that looked nothing like a natural one. Their design, a free-floating ball inside a cage, had been used in bottle stoppers for a century.

In September 1960, Starr performed the first successful valve replacement in a human, a man who survived for a decade before dying in an accident.

But people who get artificial heart valves must take blood thinners for the rest of their lives to cut their risk of blood clots. To get around that, Carpentier adapted valves from pigs. In 1965, he and a colleague did the first successful replacement of a human valve with an animal valve. In 1968, he implanted an improved version in a patient who survived for 18 years.

Carpentier also developed a valve repair surgery that “ushered in the modern era of valve reconstruction,” the foundation said.

Research prize
The prize for basic research goes to Dr. Ralph Steinman of The Rockefeller University in New York for discovering dendritic cells, which trigger defenses against germs.

“He revolutionized our understanding of the events that instigate an immune response,” the foundation said.

Steinman began his work in 1970, trying to discover what made immune system cells react to invaders. Working with material recovered from mouse spleens, he spotted the irregularly shaped dendritic cells under a microscope. He went on to show that dendritic cells goaded other cells called T cells into action against invaders.

Dendritic cells are now being studied for turning the immune system against cancers and germs such as HIV.

In addition to the research prizes, the $150,000 Lasker award for public service will be presented to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for spearheading government efforts against AIDS and bioterrorism.

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