Nobel Prize for Medicine: Silence is golden for US laureates

STOCKHOLM – Two young US scientists, Andrew Fire and Craig Mello, have 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 Monday.

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.

Genes make proteins, the molecules that comprise and maintain all the body’s tissues. They set the protein-making machinery in motion through a gofer 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. While Mello and Fire are youthful winners of the prize, they are not the youngest ever.

According to the Nobel Foundation, the youngest recipient of the Medicine Prize was Frederick Banting of Canada, co-winner in 1923 at the age of only 32 for the discovery of insulin.

The youngest winner in all the Nobel categories was Lawrence Bragg, aged only 25 when he won the physics prize in 1915 with his father, Sir William Bragg, for using X-rays to decipher the structures of crystals. Both men were British.

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 dollars, 1.07 million euros).

The Nobel prizes, founded by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, were first awarded in 1901.