Thursday, 4:30 PM
UMass professor, MIT grad share Nobel Prize
(Janet Knott/Globe Staff)
Nobel Prize winner Craig C. Mello smiling this morning at the UMass Medical School in Worcester.
By Carolyn Johnson, Globe Staff
A University of Massachusetts scientist won the Nobel Prize in Medicine today just eight years after he and a collaborator discovered a powerful new way to turn off genes. The discovery is revolutionizing medical research, allowing biotech researchers to rapidly zero in on possible genetic causes for HIV, Alzheimer's and dozens of other devastating diseases.
Craig C. Mello, 45, is the first professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School to received the prestigious award, which was announced this morning by the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden. Mello won for his work with Andrew Fire, then a scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Fire graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a Ph.D. in 1983.
The pair discovered that a particular form of ribonucleic acid, which they dubbed RNA interference, acts almost like a biological light switch, turning "off" specific genes within human cells. The cell uses RNA interference to regulate its genetic climate, but Mello and Fire showed that it could be manipulated to study genes' behavior. RNA interference -- named one of the top 10 science breakthroughs by the journal Science in 2002 and 2003 -- has already helped produce a possible treatment for macular degeneration.
"The interesting thing about this prize is so short a time it's taken from the discovery to the Nobel," said Phil Sharp, an institute professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who also has co-founded a biotech company called Alnylam that is working to develop RNAi therapies. "It's just been such a fundamental change in how we understand biological systems, and there's also more to come.
Mello, who lives in Shrewsbury, told the Associated Press that the award came as a "big surprise."
"I knew it was a possibility, but I didn't really expect it for perhaps a few more years," Mello said. "Both Andrew and I are fairly young, 40 or so, and it's only been about eight years since the discovery."
UMass Medical School Chancellor and Dean Aaron Lazare said it was "an incredible day" for the school.
"We are so very proud that Dr. Mello is the Medical School's first recipient of this illustrious prize," Lazare in a written statement. "His enthusiasm for scientific pursuits and innovation is an inspiration to his faculty colleagues, postdoctoral fellows, students and staff alike."
Fire, 47, now at Stanford University, and Mello published their research in the journal Nature in 1998.
Erna Moller, a member of the Nobel committee, said that their research helped shed new light on a complicated process that had confused researchers for years. The existence of RNA intereference helped them understand why genes that they added to cells sometimes did not seem to do anything.
"It was like opening the blinds in the morning," Moller said. "Suddenly you can see everything clearly."
Fire was awakened in his California home this morning by a call from the Nobel committee.
"I thought I must be dreaming or maybe it was the wrong number," said Fire, who convinced himself of the good news by checking the Nobel website.
"It makes me feel great. It makes me feel incredibly indebted at the same time," he said. "You realize how many other people have been major parts of our efforts."
The Nobel Prize winners receive $1.4 million and will be honored in Stockholm on Dec. 10 at a banquet, which will include Scandinavian royalty.
There are also Nobel prizes for physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics. The namesake of the awards, Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, established the prizes in his will.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.