- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2006

NEW YORK (AP) — Two Americans won the Nobel Prize in medicine yesterday for discovering a way to silence specific genes, a revolutionary finding that scientists are scrambling to harness for fighting illnesses as diverse as cancer, heart disease and AIDS.

Andrew Z. Fire, 47, of Stanford University, and Craig C. Mello, 45, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, will share the $1.4 million prize from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

They were honored remarkably swiftly for work they published together just eight years ago. It revealed a process called RNA interference, which occurs in plants, animals and humans. It’s important for regulating gene activity and helping defend against viruses.

Since the discovery, scientists have already made RNA interference a standard lab tool for studying what genes do. And they are working to use it to develop treatments against a long list of illnesses.

“It’s so important that people almost take it for granted already, even though it was discovered fairly recently,” said Nobel Prize winner Thomas Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, for which Mr. Mello is an investigator.

Nobel Prizes are generally awarded decades after the work that they honor, so a prize now for a finding published in 1998 is striking.

But it’s appropriate, said Bruce Stillman, president of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., because the work “is recognized now as one of the really revolutionary changes in the way we think about how genes are controlled.”

Genes produce their effect by sending molecules called messenger RNA to the protein-making machinery of a cell. The messenger RNA directs that machinery to produce a particular protein.

In RNA interference, certain molecules trigger the destruction or inactivation of the messenger RNA from a particular gene, so that no protein is produced. Thus the gene is effectively silenced.

For instance, researchers have shown they can lower cholesterol levels in lab animals by suppressing a gene through RNA interference.

Could this ability to block disease-promoting genes produce new treatments?

“In principle it works. In controlled laboratory conditions it works,” Mr. Cech said. “And the next five years will tell whether this is a whole new class of pharmaceuticals with the potential to defeat numerous human diseases.”

Mr. Mello, who is still doing research on RNA interference, said “there’s a lot of work to do” to turn the basic work into drug treatments.

Ironically, when the congratulatory call from the Nobel committee reached his home at 4:40 in the morning, Mr. Mello was checking the blood level of his diabetic 6-year-old daughter.

“You don’t really appreciate how important the work of the last 50 years or so of modern molecular medicine … has been until you know somebody who is alive and well because of it,” he said.

Mr. Fire said the award showed the importance of publicly funding basic research that doesn’t appear to have any near-term payoff.

Yesterday’s prize was the first Nobel of this year, to be followed by the awards for physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics. Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, established the prizes in his will.

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