Two young United States scientists, Andrew Fire and Craig Mello, on Monday won the Nobel Medicine Prize for discovering how to silence malfunctioning genes, a breakthrough which could lead to an era of new therapies to reverse crippling disease.
“This year’s Nobel laureates have discovered a fundamental mechanism for controlling the flow of genetic information,” the jury declared.
Their discovery, called RNA interference and which occurs in plants, animals and humans, was published in 1998.
That leaves a bare eight years between publication and a Nobel award, which approximates to a record for fast-track recognition. A Nobel is typically awarded decades later, when history proves that the research was truly groundbreaking.
“RNA interference is already being widely used in basic science as a method to study the function of genes and it may lead to novel therapies in the future,” the jury said.
Mello said he was stunned by the Nobel committee’s speedy recognition.
“I was very surprised, mainly because I’m fairly young and I thought maybe there were so many other discoveries worthy of a Nobel prize,” Mello, a 45-year-old professor of molecular medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, told Swedish Radio.
“I just assumed it was something that might come several years from now,” he said after receiving a telephone call from the Nobel committee in the middle of the night.
“It’s still sinking in I think, I can hardly believe it.”
Fire, a 47-year-old professor at Stanford University School of Medicine in California, said he was very happy to be honoured.
“At first of course one doesn’t believe it. It could be a dream or a mistake or something like that. I guess it’s not,” he told the radio.
He admitted to feeling “slightly guilty”, saying a number of peers in his field could just as easily have won the prestigious honour.
“There’s a number of people who have made major contributions in this field,” he said.
“I wouldn’t have been surprised to see half a dozen other names show up in this category and to have been watching from the outside.
“It’s been a wonderful field to have been part of and it’s funny that I feel slightly guilty to be sitting here having won,” added Fire.
Genes make proteins, the molecules that comprise and maintain all the body’s tissues. They set the protein-making machinery in motion through a gopher molecule called messenger RNA, or mRNA.
In 1998, Fire and Mello, working together on nematode earthworms, discovered a mechanism that interferes with mRNA — RNA interference (RNAi). RNAi, they discovered, is a natural molecular switch, regulating gene expression in plants and animals as well as humans.
By “silencing” over-active or malfunctioning genes, researchers hope to be able to devise a new generation of treatments for virus infections, cardiovascular disease, hormonal disorders and a range of inherited health problems.
“Their discovery clarified many confusing and contradictory experimental observations … [and] heralded the start of a new research field,” the Nobel committee said.
In a statement, Mello said: “Our work was just one piece of a puzzle but I think it is opening a door to a whole new frontier from which we can learn so much more about our body’s own protective mechanisms.”
The pair published their discovery in the journal Nature in 1998, and in 2002 the US medical journal Science named RNAi as the breakthrough of the year.
But the science is very new and analysts caution that technical problems and safety concerns remain to be resolved before RNAi therapies enter the medical vocabulary.
Mello deplored poor funding of medical research as a waste of precious time and costs human lives.
“The consequence of not acting is we are sentencing people to death when we could be helping” with new drugs and therapies, he said at a news conference in Worcester, Massachusetts.
“I want to get right back to work,” Mello said. “I feel like we have a mission that we are accomplishing, we are on the right track. I think because of the genome project and many of these other technologies that allow us to know the causes of diseases, there are tremendous opportunities to develop new drugs.”
Fire and Mello will each receive a gold medal and a diploma and will share the prize sum of 10-million Swedish kronor ($1,37-million).
The Nobel prizes, founded by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, were first awarded in 1901.
The Physics Prize was set to be announced on Tuesday, followed by the awards for chemistry, economics, literature and peace over the next two weeks.
The formal awarding of the prizes will take place on December 10. – AFP