3 share Nobel for mouse gene breakthrough

Prize awarded for their work in creating `designer mice' used to test disease theories

October 09, 2007|By Thomas H. Maugh II | Thomas H. Maugh II,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Two Americans and a Briton were awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine yesterday for their work in creating "designer mice" - experimental animals in which genes have been added or removed to test theories about the links between genes and disease.

Mario R. Capecchi, 70, of the University of Utah; Oliver Smithies, 82, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Martin J. Evans, 66, of Cardiff University in Wales will share the $1.54 million prize for work that the Nobel committee said "has revolutionized life science and plays a key role in the development of medical therapy."

Evans isolated embryonic stem cells from mouse tumors, providing a tool that could be used to introduce new genes into mouse strains, and is widely considered to be the father of embryonic stem cell research. Such cells have the ability to turn into any other type of cell in the body, and researchers hope they will eventually be useful in treating a host of diseases.

Capecchi and Smithies independently developed techniques to target individual genes within an organism and eliminate or replace them with a slightly altered form that could then be passed down to descendants.

The "knockout" mice, in which specific genes have been eliminated, allow researchers to demonstrate exactly what the gene does in a living organism.

Since the researchers reported their results in the 1980s, mouse strains have been produced in which about half of the mouse genomes' 22,000 genes have been individually eliminated. Researchers expect all of the mouse genes to have received the treatment within the next few years.

The knockout mice also provide animal models for the diseases, allowing researchers to test new drugs and treatments.

The three received the 2001 Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research - an award often assumed to be a precursor of the Nobel.

Both awards were richly deserved because their work "has dramatically reshaped the research landscape," said Jeremy Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which funded most of Capecchi's and Smithie's research. It has created "an indispensable tool for biomedical research."

Ironically, Capecchi said in a telephone interview, the institute rejected his initial grant proposal, arguing that "the experiments would never work."

Capecchi's life story is perhaps the most dramatic of any recent Nobel winner. Born in Verona, Italy, in 1937, he became a street urchin at age 4 when his mother was captured by the Nazis and carted off to Dachau concentration camp. He survived on the streets and in orphanages during the war until he was reunited with his mother at age 9. They moved to the United States to live with his aunt and uncle.

Smithies, who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s from England, said that the prize's financial reward was not as important as "the feeling that people appreciate the science you have done."

Evans was visiting his daughter in Cambridge, England, when he received news of the prize. "I haven't come to terms with it yet," he said. "In many ways, it is the boyhood aspiration of science, isn't it?"

They will receive the award Dec. 10 in Stockholm, Sweden.

Thomas H. Maugh II writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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