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2006 Nobel Prize For Medicine Awarded For Discovery of RNAi

By Nicholas Wade

This year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to two American researchers, Andrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello, for a far-reaching discovery about how genes are controlled within living cells.

The discovery was made in 1998, only eight years ago. It has been recognized with unusual speed by the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden, which sometimes lets decades elapse before awarding its accolade. The foundation’s caution, born of the fear of giving immediate recognition to research that may prove unfounded, may have been dispelled this year by the evident promise of the new field, several scientists said.

The finding by Fire and Mello made sense of a series of puzzling results obtained mostly by plant biologists, including some who were trying to change the color of petunias. By clarifying what was going on, they discovered a quite unexpected system of gene regulation in living cells and began an explosive phase of research in a field known variously as RNA interference or gene silencing.

This natural method of switching genes off has turned out to be a superb research tool, allowing scientists to understand the role of new genes by suppressing them. The method may also lead to a new class of drugs that switch off unwanted processes in disease. Two gene-silencing drugs designed to treat macular degeneration are already in clinical trials.

“This was such an obvious Nobel, on everybody’s list of discoveries that would receive the prize soon,” said Dr. Thomas Cech, an expert on RNA and president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Dr. Bruce Stillman, president of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, said the prize was to recognize a new field of research, which has had “a spectacular birth and expansion,” as well as the discovery by Fire and Mello that started it.

Fire, now at Stanford University, worked at the Carnegie Institution of Washington when he made the discovery. Mello, a frequent collaborator, is at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. Both are worm people, as scientists who do their biology in the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans call themselves.

Prior to their discovery, plant biologists over many decades had found odd exceptions to Mendel’s laws of heredity, including some unexplained effects produced by injecting RNA, the less well-known cousin of DNA, into plants.