About ten years ago, cardiologist Helen Hobbs and her team made a discovery that "shocked even us."
The scientists had been investigating a liver protein, dubbed PCSK9, that's responsible for circulating harmful LDL cholesterol in the human body. Their experiments revealed that some African Americans who naturally lacked PCSK9 had an incredible 88 percent reduction in their risk of developing coronary heart disease.
"That really got us thinking," says Hobbs, a professor at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. If PCSK9 could be inhibited in people at risk of the disease, science could develop a drug even more powerful than statins, the current gold standard for treating high cholesterol. The condition often leads to heart disease, which affects more than 13 million people and is America's number one killer. (Read "Healing the Heart" in National Geographic magazine.)
This year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a PCSK9 inhibitor, with more medicines likely to come. "They’re gonna be huge," Hobbs predicts.
Such a giant accomplishment hasn't gone unnoticed: Hobbs and her team are one of seven main winners of the 2016 Breakthrough Prize, which honors outstanding achievements in life sciences, physics, and mathematics. Hobbs and her team also received the award for their work in identifying the genes behind fatty liver disease, a condition that's growing in prevalence in the U.S., particularly among Hispanics.
The National Geographic Channel broadcast the award ceremony, hosted by Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane, live from NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, on November 8. It's the first year that the Channel has aired the event. (See the full list of winners.)
Other winning projects included unlocking mutations that cause Alzheimer's disease, sussing out our genetic relationship to Neanderthals, and solving problems in the mathematical world of 3D shapes and higher dimensions.
A total of $22.2 million in prizes were awarded, including $3 million for each of the seven main prizes. The Fundamental Physics of $3 million is shared by five teams comprised of 1,370 scientists.
In addition, a total of eight early-career New Horizons prizes in physics and math of $100,000 each were awarded to early-career scientists.
The inaugural Breakthrough Junior Challenge, a science-video contest for high school students, drew more than 2,000 applicants from 86 countries this year. The winner, Ryan Chester, received $250,000 in educational prizes.
Tech investor Yuri Milner, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Alibaba founder Jack Ma, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, and genetic-testing company 23andMe founder Anne Wojcicki founded the Breakthrough Prize, dubbed the "Oscar of science," in 2012.
Selection committees of prior prize recipients select the laureates each year.
Other 2016 winners include Arthur B. McDonald and colleagues, whose decades of work have given us a more nuanced look at the neutrino, a mysterious, invisible, and elusive particle that travels through almost any type of matter.
The team confirmed a theory that the particles oscillate, changing into one of three different "flavors," or types, as they fly across the universe at slightly below the speed of light. (Related: "Particles Moved Faster Than Speed of Light?")
For our basic understanding of the universe, the findings are "substantial," says McDonald, director of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory Institute in Ontario, Canada.
The most prolific particles produced at the time of the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago, neutrinos significantly shaped how our universe evolved. They still play a major part in how collapsing stars, or supernovae, explode.
That's why understanding neutrinos can help inform us about now only the origins of the universe, but how it works today. (Also see ""God Particle" Collider Rebooting to Be Most Powerful Yet.")
There's more. The neutrino experiments also helped solidify a theory for how our sun shines—a calculation that can be used (on a much smaller scale) to develop fusion power, a potential source of future energy.
"It’s a case of how confirming basic physics in a fundamental way [can help] apply physics to things of value for human life here on Earth," McDonald says.
"I'm Not Stopping Anytime Soon"
Since its founding, the Breakthrough Prize has awarded over $160 million to some of the most brilliant minds in science.
Past winners include Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna of Germany's Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research, who earned the 2015 award for cracking the defense mechanism that bacteria use to destroy viruses.
Michael B. Green of Cambridge University and John H. Schwarz of the California Institute of Technology won in 2014 for helping unravel the mysteries of string theory, which describes subatomic particles as being composed of tiny strings of energy. (Read more about past Breakthrough Prize winners.)
As for 2016 winners McDonald and Hobbs, they say they'll continue delving deeper into science's mysteries, whether it's within our bodies or the cosmos.
"I love my work—I love figuring out [how] these genes that we’ve identified play an important role in health," Hobbs says.
"I'm 63," she adds, "but I’m not stopping anytime soon."