Journalist and TV personality Meredith Vieira hosts the the annual...

Journalist and TV personality Meredith Vieira hosts the the annual Double Helix Medals Dinner at the Mandarin Hotel in Manhattan. (Aug. 24, 2011) Credit: Agaton Strom

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Tuesday night recognized basketball icon Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, autism advocate Temple Grandin and Dr. Harold Varmus, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, with awards that celebrate the passion for advancing biomedical research.

About 500 people attended the sixth Double Helix Medals dinner Tuesday night hosted by television personalities Meredith Vieira and Phil Donahue at the Mandarin Oriental hotel off Columbus Circle in Manhattan.

The event was expected to raise $3.3 million for the laboratory.

The laboratory awards the medals to people who have positively impacted human health by raising awareness and funds for biomedical research.

Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's all-time leading scorer and a 19-time All Star who won a record six regular-season MVP Awards, has a family history of cancer and was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in 2008 that is now in remission. He is a leading spokesman and fundraiser for cancer research.

"I never thought I'd be in this place at this time in my life," he told the crowd. "I never thought I'd be an advocate for cancer."

Still, he said he was "totally committed" to Cold Spring Harbor and its work, and encouraged scientists to "keep up the good work."

Grandin, 64, who had to overcome her own autism diagnosis, was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in 2010. She is an advocate for autism research and the subject of an award-winning HBO movie.

A professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University who was unable to speak until she was 4, Grandin said she was honored to receive the award and said the autism gene work being done at the laboratory is "very important for children with severe autism."

Varmus, former president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, won the 1989 Nobel Prize for a discovery that transformed the understanding of cancer's biology and provided the foundation for targeted cancer therapies.

At the ceremony, he called himself a "child of Long Island" because he was born in Oceanside, grew up in Freeport and spent his formative research years at Cold Spring Harbor.

Dr. Bruce Stillman, president of the laboratory, said that researchers this year celebrated two major achievements, in autism and leukemia research. "Never in the history of biology has it been more exciting to be at Cold Spring Harbor," he said.

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