The Breakthrough Prize Foundation and its sponsors – Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Ma Huateng, Yuri and Julia Milner and Anne Wojcicki – announced today the recipients of the 2019 Breakthrough Prize, awarding a collective total of $22 million to nine researchers for important achievements in the Life Sciences, Fundamental Physics and Mathematics.

The 2019 Breakthrough Prize and New Horizon Prize recipients will be recognized at the seventh annual Breakthrough Prize ceremony, known as the “Oscars of Science,” hosted by acclaimed actor, producer and philanthropist Pierce Brosnan, on Sunday, November 4, at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, and broadcast live on National Geographic.

Considered the world’s most generous science prize, each Breakthrough Prize is for $3 million. Now in its seventh year, the Prize recognizes achievements in the Life Sciences, Fundamental Physics and Mathematics, the disciplines that ask the biggest questions and find the deepest explanations.

The discoveries recognized this year include:

•       In the Life Sciences, a spectacularly successful gene therapy drug, Spinraza, that treats Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a deadly infant disease;

•       A super-resolution imaging technology that transcends traditional light microscopy revealing entirely new internal structures of cells;

•       The revelation of a mechanism by which cells detect foreign DNA and trigger immune response, with implications for cancer and autoimmune diseases;

•       And, insight into how abnormal numbers of chromosomes are implicated in almost all cancers and can otherwise wreak havoc in the human body. 

•       In Fundamental Physics, mind-bending theoretical advances including the discovery of a new class of electronic materials that simultaneously conduct and resist electricity and could prove transformative for quantum computing.

•       And in Mathematics, for elegant and groundbreaking contributions to the Langlands program in the function field case.

In addition to the seven main-stage prizes, a total of six New Horizons Prizes, worth $100,000 each, were awarded to seven physicists and five mathematicians for early-career achievements in their respective fields. Full citations can be found below.

The 2019 Breakthrough Prize and New Horizon Prize recipients will be recognized at the Breakthrough Prize ceremony, or the “Oscars of Science,” on Sunday, November 4. The gala-event, hosted by acclaimed actor, producer and philanthropist Pierce Brosnan, will bring together luminaries of the science and tech communities with celebrities, athletes and musicians, all attending with the common goal of celebrating science and scientific achievement. This year’s ceremony will be broadcast live on Nat Geo, YouTube and Facebook Live from the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

In September, an additional Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics was announced, recognizing British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell for her role in the surprise discovery of pulsars – an exotic new type of star – first announced in February 1968, and for her inspiring scientific leadership over the last five decades.


2019 Breakthrough Prize | Categories | Citations | Descriptions



C. Frank Bennett and Adrian R. Krainer – Ionis Pharmaceuticals and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, respectively

Citation: For the development of an effective antisense oligonucleotide therapy for children with the neurodegenerative disease spinal muscular atrophy.

Description: Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) is a rare but devastating disease – the leading genetic cause of infant death. Many children with SMA die before their second birthday. Now it is no longer a death sentence. Frank Bennett, a pharmacologist, and Adrian Krainer, a biochemist, built upon their discoveries about antisense technology and the natural process of RNA splicing to produce the first drug to treat SMA – Nusinersen (marketed by Biogen as Spinraza). It was approved by the FDA in 2016 and is one of the first of a promising new breed of antisense therapies now in development for familial dysautonomia (FD), glioblastoma and liver cancer. The work has also paved the way for the possibility of new therapies using gene silencing modalities for Huntington’s, ALS, spinocerebellar ataxias, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Bennett grew up in his family’s hotel, in Aztec, New Mexico. With a nudge from guidance counselors, he pursued pharmacology instead, and developed a passion for finding cures for really awful diseases. Krainer grew up in Montevideo, Uruguay, of Eastern European descent. He admired Gregor Mendel’s work, and as a high school student developed an interest in genetics. Bennett and Krainer, previously aware of each other’s work, joined forces in 2004 to research SMA and have collaborated ever since.

Angelika Amon – Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Citation: For determining the consequences of aneuploidy, an abnormal chromosome number resulting from chromosome mis-segregation.

Description: An extra chromosome can lead to devastating consequences (Down Syndrome, miscarriage, etc.) In fact, 80 percent of all cancers have either extra or missing chromosomes. 

Viennese-born molecular biologist Angelika Amon has shown how irregularities in the number of chromosomes (“aneuploidy”) produces a stress response and disrupts the cell’s fail-safe, error-repair system – which in turn allows genetic mutations to quickly accumulate. She is hopeful that an understanding of the consequences of aneuploidy will shed light on cancer evolution and help to identify new therapeutic targets for cancer, building upon her work on the cellular vulnerabilities caused by aneuploidy. Amon lives by what she calls ‘the grandma test’ – an idea has to be easily explainable to pique her interest. She asks simple questions to get big answers.

Xiaowei Zhuang – Harvard University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Citation: For discovering hidden structures in cells by developing super-resolution imaging – a method that transcends the fundamental spatial resolution limit of light microscopy.

Description: Xiaowei Zhuang was a child prodigy. At age six, she was able to identify the atmospheric force acting upon a glass of water, impressing her father, an aerodynamics professor at China’s leading science and technology university. Years later, a post-doc at Stanford at the dawn of the golden age of microscopy, she channeled her passion for physics into bioimaging and an exploration of biological systems. In her lab at Harvard University, she invented a super-resolution imaging method (STORM) which employs switchable fluorescent molecules to smash the boundaries imposed by the diffraction limit of traditional microscopes. The result: ultra-high resolution images of molecules and cellular structures 10,000x smaller than the width of a human hair. With STORM, her lab has discovered previously unknown cellular structures, such as a periodic membrane skeleton in neurons in the brain. 

Zhijian “James” Chen – University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Citation: For elucidating how DNA triggers immune and autoimmune responses from the interior of a cell through the discovery of the DNA-sensing enzyme cGAS.

Description: T-cells and other white blood cells are the frontline fighters of the immune system. Biochemist Zhijian (James) Chen has illuminated the workings of an underlying, innate immune system – operating out of every cell in our body that triggers the deployment (or over-deployment) of the fight-back response to virus, stress, radiation and other insults. Chen’s lab has shown how DNA brought in by an invader, or seeping out of a cell’s nucleus, is sensed by a protein, that, ultimately, activates the T-cells
and white blood cells. He is now working to harness this powerful healing force to stop diseases like cancer; and to rein in the mechanism when it goes awry in auto-immune disorders such as arthritis and lupus. Chen grew up in a remote mountain village in China’s Fujian Province. Early in his childhood, he demonstrated an innate curiosity about nature and was encouraged by his parents to pursue a career in science. He emigrated to the US and earned his PhD at SUNY Buffalo. He believes science has no borders and that disease is our common enemy.

“The winners of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Science show us all how it’s done,” said Cori Bargmann, chair of the selection committee. “Through creativity, innovation, persistence, and skill, each of them brought about an advance that was previously unimaginable.”


Charles Kane and Eugene Mele – University of Pennsylvania

Citation: For new ideas about topology and symmetry in physics, leading to the prediction of a new class of materials that conduct electricity only on their surface.