Cancer work brings man $25,000 prize

November 21, 1999|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

A 29-year-old cancer researcher at the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center has won a prestigious science prize for a new method of identifying active genes in cancer cells.

Victor Velculescu, a postdoctoral student in the lab of Hopkins oncologist Bert Vogelstein, developed the method for his thesis in 1998, and has watched it quickly become implemented by scientists worldwide.

The $25,000 award was announced Thursday by Science magazine.

Velculescu said the idea arose from the inadequacy of existing methods to see genetic patterns inside cancer cells.

For years, he said, scientists have needed a way to see which genes are active in particular cells. Although approximately 100,000 genes constitute the human genome, only a small number of those are actually expressed or "turned on" in a given cell.

Velculescu's mission was to find a way to identify those active genes and picture them as part of the cell's total genetic pattern.

Using his method, SAGE (Serial Analysis of Gene Expression), scientists can quickly identify different kinds of active genes and watch the distinct ways they develop and affect an organism. He said SAGE could be used to see whether changes in gene expression cause cancer to progress.

He said the method might also be used to activate or deactivate specific genes, or to identify genes that could serve as markers indicating a disease process.

Amersham Pharmacia Biotech, a leading biotechnology supplier, and Science have offered the award since 1995 to support molecular biologists at the start of their careers. All applicants earned their doctorates in 1998, and submitted 1,000-word essays on their work.

The award ceremony will be Dec. 9 at Uppsala University in Sweden.

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