Stanford professor Fire wins Nobel Prize
Photo courtesy Stanford
By Anna Molin, Bay City News Service
October 2, 2006
STANFORD (BCN) - Stanford University Professor of Pathology
and Genetics Andrew Fire won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology
or Medicine today for discovering a mechanism that turns off,
or silences, the effect of certain genes, thereby introducing
potential new opportunities for fighting diseases as varied as
cancer, heart disease, HIV and hepatitis.
Fire, 47, shares the honor and $1.4 million Swedish prize with
Craig Mello, 45, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School
in Worcester, Mass.
"I was very happy," Fire told Swedish Radio, minutes
after being notified. "At first, of course, I couldn't believe
it -- I could be dreaming or it could be a mistake or something
like that -- but I guess it's not. And it's very nice."
The process, RNA interference, or RNAi,
occurs naturally in animals, plants and humans to regulate gene
expression and ward off viral infections and so called jumping
The mechanism is activated when double-stranded RNA is inserted
into a cell, setting off a biological effect that degrades mRNA
molecules carrying the same genetic code as the double-stranded
RNA. The procedure prevents the gene from producing protein, effectively
"Their discovery clarified many confusing and contradictory
experimental observations and revealed a natural mechanism for
controlling the flow of genetic information," the Nobel Assembly
at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, wrote in today's
announcement. "This heralded the start of a new research
Fire and Mello published their findings involving RNAi in the
journal Nature on Feb. 19, 1998. By experimenting on roundworms
with mRNA and RNA molecules encoding a muscle protein, the scientists
found no change in behavior when the codes were inserted separately.
However, when injected together, the worms began to twitch abnormally.
Testing on different worm proteins produced the same results,
leading to the conclusion that injection of double-stranded RNA
silences the gene containing the identical code, thereby short-circuiting
the gene's ability to make protein.
"This is an extraordinary achievement for Andy Fire and
Craig Mello, for science and for Stanford," Philip Pizzo,
dean of the Stanford School of Medicine, said in a statement.
"It serves as an affirmation of the importance of basic fundamental
research that yields new insights into important biological mechanisms.
Such discoveries not only elucidate new understanding of human
biology, but can unfold into new directions that can potentially
translate into discoveries of new diagnostic and therapeutic approaches
for a variety of human disorders."
RNAi is already frequently used as a research tool in biology
and biomedicine, and scientists hope to extend its usage to clinical
medicine and agriculture, among other areas.
Recently, a gene causing high blood cholesterol levels was shown
to be silenced by treating animals with RNAi, and plans are underway
to develop RNAi as a treatment for influenzas, cardiovascular
diseases, cancer and endocrine disorders.
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