But few know about Bert Vogelstein, a Johns Hopkins scientist who helped map the cancer genome and created gene and stool tests to detect colon cancer.
A new, international award, similar to the Nobel Prize, but with a bigger payout of $3 million, aims to change that.
On Wednesday, Zuckerberg and Brin joined Russian entrepreneur and venture capitalist Yuri Milner and Anne Wojcicki, founder of genetic testing company 23andMe, to launch the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.
Vogelstein was one of 11 researchers chosen as inaugural winners of the award, which will be given to 11 scientists each year. It is believed to be one of the most lucrative science awards in the world. The goal of the award is to bring attention to scientific research and encourage innovation and discovery.
"We are thrilled to support scientists who think big, take risks and have made a significant impact on our lives," Wojcicki said in a statement. "These scientists should be household names and heroes in our society."
Vogelstein, co-director of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at Hopkins, has spent decades leading a team of researchers that sequenced cancer genomes and studied mutations in cancer cells to better understand the disease.
The research helped to create a framework that Vogelstein hopes will lead to cancer treatments.
"There is obviously a lot we still don't understand, but the basic outline is done," Vogelstein said. "That doesn't mean we can treat cancer now or prevent it now, but it means we know its origin. The history of medical research shows once you understand disease, it is only a matter of time before you get to some kind of treatment for that disease."
Vogelstein, 63, first became interested in cancer research when as a resident he had to treat a young patient for leukemia. Her teary-eyed parents asked why the disease had to attack their daughter.
"I had nothing to say to them," he said.
The Baltimore native thought he could have more influence in advancing medicine through research. He also likes the intellectual challenge of research, but said the idea of helping people still drives him today.
Vogelstein said he was stunned to learn that he had won the award in a phone call last week from Art Levinson, chairman of Apple. Levinson also was appointed chairman of the nonprofit foundation that will administer the Breakthrough Prize. The board decided this year who would get awards. A selection committee made up of past winners will decide future prizes based on nominations.
Vogelstein said he will use the money for charity and to send his grandchildren to college. He may put some toward more research.
The other winners were Cornelia I. Bargmann and Titia de Lange of Rockefeller University in New York; David Botstein of Princeton University; Lewis C. Cantley of Weill Cornell Medical College and New York-Presbyterian Hospital; Hans Clevers of Hubrecht Institute in the Netherlands; Napoleone Ferrara of the University of California, San Diego; Eric S. Lander and Robert A. Weinberg of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Charles L. Sawyers of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York; and Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Japan.