SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Sanford Health has named the three finalists for its $1 million Lorraine Cross Award, given every other year to a researcher or innovator who has pioneered a medical breakthrough.

The finalists for 2020 are researchers who have broken new ground in the areas of infectious disease, cystic fibrosis and using CAR T-cells to fight cancer.

The winner of the award will be selected in a ceremony in Sioux Falls, where the health system is headquartered, on Dec. 8.

The finalists are:

  • Dr. Mark Denison: Denison, of Vanderbilt University has studied coronaviruses for decades, long before they entered the popular conversation in the current COVID-19 pandemic. In 2007, Denison's lab found a way to slip past coronaviruses' ability to fix errors in their RNA sequences, making it possible to stop viruses from growing. Their discovery of Remdesivir, in partnership with Gilead Sciences, provided a drug that accomplished just such an evasion, killing the virus. Remdesiver has gained international attention this year, as it's shown its value as a therapeutic solution for some COVID-19 patients.
  • Dr. Carl June: June, of the University of Pennsylvania, worked with colleague Dr. Bruce Levine to reprogram T cells to fight leukemia cancer cells. T cells are cells that triggers a body's immune response to harmful intruders. The reprogrammed T cells, known as CAR (chimeric antigen receptor) T-Cells, became not just immune system triggers, but actual weapons in the fight against cancer. This therapy is now named KYMRIAH by Novartis and is FDA-approved to treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
  • Dr. Michael Welsh: Welsh, a pulmonary physician, has made discoveries crucial to the fight against cystic fibrosis, an inherited disease that causes lifelong vulnerability to destructive lung infections and an early death. Welsh discovered that a gene instructed a cell to make a channel for chloride, linking genetics and the lung infections and clearly identifying a target that needed repair. He then discovered ways the common cystic fibrosis gene mutation could be corrected in a lab, igniting drug development.
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The Sanford Lorraine Cross Award was first awarded in 2018, to Dr. Jean Bennett and Dr. Katherine High for their collaboration on a landmark gene therapy treatment to cure a form of congenital retinal dystrophy, and restoring sight.

The award is financially supported through an endowment established by donors to the Sanford Health Foundation.