- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2006

2:09 p.m.

STOCKHOLM — Americans Andrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello won the Nobel Prize in medicine today for discovering a powerful way to turn off the effect of specific genes, opening a potential new avenue for fighting diseases as diverse as cancer and AIDS.

The process, called RNA interference, also is being studied for treating such conditions as hepatitis virus infection and heart disease. It already is used widely in basic science as a method to study the function of genes.

Mr. Fire, 47, of Stanford University, and Mr. Mello, 45, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, published their seminal work in a 1998 paper.

RNA interference occurs naturally in plants, animals and humans. The Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, which awarded the $1.4 million prize, said it is important for regulating the activity of genes and helps defend against viral infection. The two scientists will share the prize money.

“This year’s Nobel laureates have discovered a fundamental mechanism for controlling the flow of genetic information,” the institute said.

Erna Moller, a member of the Nobel committee, said their research helped shed new light on a complicated process that had confused researchers for years.

“It was like opening the blinds in the morning,” she said. “Suddenly you can see everything clearly.”

Jeremy M. Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in Bethesda, which has funded work by Mr. Fire and Mr. Mello for years, said he predicted the two men would win this year.

“It’s an example of a discovery of a fundamental biological process that has an almost unlimited number of implications,” Mr. Berg said. “The impact has just been steadily growing.”

Genes produce their effect by sending molecules called messenger RNA to the protein-making machinery of a cell. In RNA interference, certain molecules trigger the destruction or inactivation of RNA from a particular gene so that no protein is produced. Thus, the gene is effectively silenced.

For instance, a gene causing high blood cholesterol levels was shown recently to be silenced in animals through RNA interference.

The prize for Mr. Mello and Mr. Fire came remarkably quickly after they did the work. Nobels generally are given decades after the research they honor.

Mr. Mello, reached at his home in Shrewsbury, Mass., said 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. Both Andrew and I are fairly young, 40 or so, and it’s only been about eight years since the discovery.”

Mr. Fire conducted his research while at the Washington-based Carnegie Institution.

The announcement opened this year’s series of prize announcements. It will be followed by Nobel prizes for physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics.

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