20 Most Influential Medical Researchers Alive Today

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Updated on March 31, 2023
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Healthcare has seen huge leaps in advancements over the last century. From the 1960s on, the application of technology to medical science research began to allow physicians and scientists to study things that just a few years before, we didn’t know existed, and had no way of discovering. This list consists of a diverse array of living titans in the medical research field. Nobel Prize and Lasker Award winners, these scientists are responsible for discovering things that have saved millions of lives, and have the potential to save even more. The list is diverse, featuring scientists from all corners of the field, and the globe, who have made and are making significant medical advancements.

#20. Napoleone Ferrara

Ferrara is a molecular biologist that specializes in cancer research. He is a Genentech Fellow in Tumor Biology and Angiogenesis. Ferrara’s Lasker Award, however, was given for a different application of his research that led to an effective treatment of age related wet macular degeneration. Ferrara earned his medical degree from the University of Catania, Italy.

#19. Arthur L. Horwich

Horwich is a biologist and the current Eugene Higgins Professor of Genetics and Pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine. He pioneered the practice of protein folding and his discoveries in that field have been applied across the discipline of genetics ever since. Horwich entered a program at Brown that was one of the first to combine the earning of a bachelor degree and medical degree. Upon graduation he went on to work with prestigious organizations like the Salk Institute, and the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry. Horwich received a Lasker Award for his discoveries regarding protein folding.

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#18. Michael Sheetz

Sheetz is a cell biologist at Columbia University and was the founding director of the Mechanobiology Institute of the National University of Singapore. Sheetz earned his bachelor’s degree at Albion College and his Ph.D. at the California Institute of Technology. Sheetz is a recipient of both the Wiley Prize in Biomedical Science, which recognizes outstanding research that advances our knowledge of biological systems and processes, and a Lasker Award for discoveries concerning cytoskeletal motor proteins.

#17. Sir Martin Evans

Sir Martin Evans is  a British developmental biologist and was the first recorded scientist to culture the embryonic stem cells of mice and cultivate them in a lab, an act that has earned him the moniker “stem cell architect." Evans also pioneered gene targeting for the purpose of genetic engineering in mice. Genetically modified mice have since become a tool crucial to medical research. Evans, who studied at Christ’s College at Cambridge and University College London, was awarded a Lasker Award in 2001 and the Nobel Prize in 2007. He has taught at Cardiff University, Christ’s College at Cambridge, and University College London.

#16. John Sulston

This British Biologist shared a Nobel Prize in 2002. Sulston’s primary research has been in human genetics and he has worked with some of the most prestigious organizations in the world including the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, on top of having taught at Cambridge and the University of Manchester. John Sulston is a graduate of Pembroke College at Cambridge.

#15. Tim Hunt

This British biochemist shared a Nobel Prize in 2001 for discovering protein molecules that control the division of cells, leading to a much greater understanding of cell reproduction in living organisms. Hunt discovered two proteins that help regulate the transition of cells from one form to another. His work moved our understanding of the reproduction of cancer cells, moving research on cancer forward. Hunt studied at the University of Cambridge, where he later taught, is a fellow of the Royal Society, and worked with Cancer Research UK.

#14. Sydney Brenner

This South African biologist contributed greatly to efforts to understand the genetic code. Brenner and George Pieczenik were the first to utilize computer analysis to study nucleic acids. He earned degrees from the University of Watersrand, and Oxford, and was a postdoctoral fellow at U.C. Berkeley. Throughout his career he has worked at King’s College at Cambridge, the Molecular Sciences Institute, the University of Watersrand, and U.C. Berkeley.

#13. David J. Weatherall

This British M.D. is a prominent researcher in molecular genetics, haematology, and pathology. He is one of the leading experts worldwide on thalassemias, blood disorders that cause anemia and other complications. The focus of his research has been on the molecular foundation of thalassemias, and the application of that knowledge to controlling the disorders. Weatherall graduated with his medical degree from the University of Liverpool and has worked with the Institute of Molecular Medicine at Oxford, been a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, and written important works for the World Health Organisation. Weatherall received a Lasker Award for his long career devoted to the advancement of biomedical science and bioethics.

#12. Paul Greengard

An American neurologist, Greengard’s significant contributions to the medical field are his discoveries regarding the molecular and cellular functions of neurons. Greengard shared a Nobel Prize in the year 2000 for discoveries that furthered our knowledge of signal transduction in the nervous system. He studied at Johns Hopkins University, Hamilton College, and Cambridge, and is current the Vincent Astor Professor at Rockefeller University. He has also held positions at Vanderbilt and Yale.

#11. James D. Watson

This molecular biologist and geneticist shared the 1968 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with 2 others for their discoveries of the molecular structure of nucleic acids, or, the double helix, and the structure’s significance regarding the transfer of information in live organisms. Watson and his colleagues made this discovery while working at Oxford. Watson studied at the University of Chicago and Indiana University. Watson was appointed head of the Human Genome Project in 1990, and was an early advocate against the practice of patenting human genes and DNA.

#10. Louis Ignarro

This American medical researcher and pharmacologist was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of an uneducated carpenter. In 1998 Ignarro was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of the signalling properties of nitric oxide. Ignarro studied at Columbia and the University of Minnesota and is currently professor of pharmacology at UCLA. His early research collaborations at the National Institutes of Health lead to an increased understanding of the cardiovascular system in the medical community. His discoveries have led to the development of many medicines including nutritional supplements that improve cardiovascular health, and Viagra. He has written five major works on the implications of his research into the health properties of Nitric Oxide.

#9. Harold E. Varmus

One of the foremost cancer researchers in the world, Varmus was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1989 for his discovery of the cellular origins of retroviral oncogenes which has been instrumental in the fight against cancer. Varmus, who attended Amherst College, Harvard University, and Columbia University, is one of three co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. He also is the director of the National Cancer Institute, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

#8. Jack W. Szostak

This Canadian researcher studied at McGill University and Cornell. Szostak is now a Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. Szostak received a Nobel Prize in 2009 which he shared with Elizabeth Blackburn for their co-discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres. Szostak also received a Lasker Award (2006), Genetics Society of America Medal, and a Dr. A.H. Heineken Prize (2008). His discoveries haven’t been limited to the one for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize. He also is credited with constructing the world’s first artificial yeast chromosome, and he was instrumental in the successes of the Human Genome Project.

#7. Tom Maniatis

This American professor of cellular and molecular biology studied at the University of Colorado, Vanderbilt and holds several honorary degrees. Maniatis is a biotech pioneer and has been involved with some of the largest biotech firms in the world, including co-founding the Genetics Institute. He was awarded the Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science along with Donald D. Brown for their numerous discoveries that have advanced the field of biomedical science.

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#6. Torsten Wiesel

This Swedish medical researcher was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1981 for discoveries regarding the processing of information by the visual system. His discoveries regarding sensory processing moved the medical field and our understanding of the workings of the human body forward by leaps and bounds. Torsten Weisel studied at the Karolinska Institute, a Stockholm medical university. His discoveries opened the door for the treatment of childhood cataracts and Strabismus. Wiesel was also awarded the National Medal of Science in 2005, and the Order of the Rising Sun, Grand Cordon, one of the highest honors bestowed by the nation of Japan.

#5. Gerald Edelman

A graduate of Ursinus College and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Gerald Edelman has been responsible for major discoveries regarding the structure of antibodies. Edelman discovered that antibodies evolve to better meet the needs of our bodies as we age, and drew correlations between that evolution and the evolution of the human brain throughout life. Edelman was awarded a Nobel Prize for his antibody research, and is the founder and director of non-profit organization “The Neurosciences Institute."

#4. Elizabeth Blackburn

This Australian microbiology and immunology researcher co-discovered an enzyme that protects chromosomes. The understanding that flows from her research has given medical researchers a greater understanding of aging. In studying the chromosome and its protective substance, it was discovered that humans age as the substance deteriorates, and there are certain circumstances that cause the substance to deteriorate more rapidly. She was awarded a Nobel Prize for her discovery. Blackburn earned her degrees from the University of Melbourne and Darwin College at Cambridge.

#3. Sir Roy Calne

This doctor pioneered organ transplantation, and performed the first liver transplant operation in Europe in the 1960s. He also performed the first liver, heart, and lungs transplant in the 1980s, the first intestinal transplant in England in the 1990s, and the first combined transplant of stomach, liver, kidneys, and pancreas in 1994. He received a Lasker Award in 2012 for pioneering transplant medical procedures that have been responsible for saving thousands of lives.

#2. Tu Youyou

This Chinese medical scientist and pharmaceutical chemist received a Lasker award for discoveries of artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin which are used to treat malaria. It is estimated that her discoveries have saved millions of lives. Youyou attended Beijing Medical College. Youyou has no postgraduate degree, and is not a member of any of the prestigious Chinese academies. Before receiving the Lasker Award in 2011 she had been almost completely forgotten by the world; but the impact of her work has only grown.

#1. Sir John B. Gurdon

Gurdon is a developmental biologist who pioneered research in cloning and nuclear transplantation. In 2009 Gurdon received a Lasker Award, and in 2012 he and Shinya Yaminaka were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering that mature cells can be converted into stem cells. Gurdon studied at and worked for Christ Church, Oxford, and has worked for Cambridge, and the California Institute of Technology. In 2004 the Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research UK was renamed The Gurdon Institute.

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