News Release

Cancer researcher Craig B. Thompson named 2024 Watanabe Prize winner

Grant and Award Announcement

Indiana University

Craig B. Thompson


Craig B. Thompson, MD

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Credit: Courtesy of Craig B. Thompson

INDIANAPOLIS – Pioneering cancer researcher Craig B. Thompson, MD, has been named the 2024 winner of the August M. Watanabe Prize in Translational Research.

Awarded by the Indiana University School of Medicine, the Watanabe Prize is one of the nation's largest and most prestigious awards recognizing individuals focused on shepherding scientific discoveries into new therapies for patients. The prize is awarded to a senior investigator who has made a significant contribution to the field of translational science. 

Thompson is the former president and chief executive officer of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center from 2010 to 2022. He continues to oversee the Craig Thompson Lab at Sloan Kettering, where his research focuses on cellular metabolism and its role in disease and cancer. He is also a member of the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences.

Some of the Thompson lab's most notable scientific achievements include:

  • A long-standing collaboration with Carl H. June, MD, on how T lymphocytes are activated and gain effector function. These studies were the foundation upon which June's team then developed CAR-T immunotherapy, which has fundamentally changed the way several blood cancers are treated.
  • Being one of the first to characterize the first immune checkpoint CTLA4, which has led to revolutionary immunotherapy for the treatment of many cancers.
  • Defining how cells regulated programmed cell death. In collaboration with Stanley J. Korsmeyer, MD, Thompson's work was seminal in delineating the molecular mechanisms regulating cell death. This is an understanding that is now integral to almost every field of medicine, and Thompson has been centrally involved in translating these discoveries clinically into cancer therapeutics.
  • Establishing the pattern of reprogramed metabolism as a hallmark of cancer, which has led to new clinical approaches in both the treatment and diagnosis of cancer.

As the 2024 Watanabe Prize winner, Thompson will receive $100,000 and be honored at the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute's Annual Meeting this September in Indianapolis, where he will give the keynote address. Housed at the IU School of Medicine, the Indiana CTSI is a statewide partnership among IU, Purdue University, the University of Notre Dame and the Regenstrief Institute.

"It is an honor to be recognized with the 2024 Watanabe Prize," Thompson said. "Dr. Watanabe was a pioneer in the science of translating new discoveries into improved therapies for disease. I look forward to attending the Indiana CTSI's Annual Meeting to discuss how new research into cancer cell metabolism is helping deliver therapeutic advances in the treatment of cancer and other proliferative diseases."

Thompson's other national and international recognitions include the Steven C. Beering Award for Medical Research (IU), the Vallee Award in Biomedical Science (American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology), the Weinman Award (University of Hawaii), the Block Memorial Lectureship Award for Distinguished Achievement in Cancer (Ohio State University), the Bertner Memorial Award (The University of Texas MD Anderson), the American College of Physicians Award for Medical Science, and the Cori Award (Roswell Park Cancer Institute), as well as service on the Albert Lasker Medical Research Awards Prize Committee, the Board of Scientific Counselors of the National Cancer Institute, the Board of Directors of the American Association for Cancer Research, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Medical Advisory Board.

"We are looking forward to welcoming Dr. Thompson to our campus this fall," said Tatiana Foroud, PhD, the August M. Watanabe Professor of Medical Research and executive associate dean for research affairs at the IU School of Medicine. "Dr. Thompson's accomplishments and accolades reflect a pioneering career in groundbreaking translational research in immunology and cancer. His visit and keynote promise to be a wonderful opportunity for researchers at the IU School of Medicine and across the state to learn about his transformational work."

Thompson was nominated by IU School of Medicine Dean Jay L. Hess, MD, PhD, MHSA, and Kelvin P. Lee, MD, associate dean for cancer research at the school and director of the IU Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center.

"The translational impact of Dr. Thompson's work cannot be understated," Lee said. "He has made the foundational discoveries and established the essential translational frameworks to move these discoveries into the clinical arena — contributions that have not only significantly moved the field forward but also in entirely new directions. These new directions include paradigm- and practice-changing approaches in immunotherapy and precision metabolic targeting that are revolutionizing the way we treat cancer patients."

The Watanabe Prize is eponymously named in honor of the late August M. Watanabe, a titan in the field of translational research in both academia and industry who impacted the health of people around the world as a leader at the IU School of Medicine and Eli Lilly and Company.

Past Watanabe Prize recipients include Huda Zoghbi, MD (2023); Adrian R. Krainer, PhD (2022); Nancy J. Brown, MD (2021); Brian Druker, MD (2020); David Holtzman, MD (2019); Jean Bennett, MD, PhD (2018); Robert J. Lefkowitz, MD (2016); Carl H. June, MD (2015); and Tadataka Yamada, MD (2013).

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